methadone addict

Methadone Programs Save Lives, But Are They Enough?

As the opioid crisis deepens, a Canadian study brings encouraging news about existing programs; however, steep challenges remain.


Opioid addicts with criminal backgrounds are three times less likely to die prematurely from overdoses or more general causes if they’re in a methadone program, according to a Canadian study.

The study involved 14,530 people from BC with convictions who had been prescribed methadone, with data collected between 1998 and 2015. A total of 1,275 participants died during the study period.

Researchers examined data on prescriptions, convictions, and deaths. This allowed them to compare and contrast overall and cause-specific deaths between separate periods when methadone was or wasn’t in the picture.

Even after health, socio-demographic, and criminal factors are controlled for, the data illustrates that participation in a methadone program is correlated with a significantly lower risk of mortality from overdose or otherwise.

The team notes that “achieving higher rates of [methadone] adherence may reduce overdose deaths and other causes of mortality among offenders and similarly marginalized populations.”

“Our findings warrant examination in other study centres in response to the crisis of opioid-involved deaths.”

Support services ‘failing’ vulnerable individuals

Opioid deaths have risen sharply across North America in recent decades. In the U.S., it has been described as the Food and Drug Administration’s “biggest crisis”, and tens of thousands of lives are claimed every year across the continent.

Those with criminal histories are at a higher risk of developing opioid addiction and premature death.

Speaking to the Globe and Mail, co-author Julian Somers said that participants were 15 times more likely than the general population to have schizophrenia and eight times more likely to have bipolar disorder.

He also criticized the government agencies for their alleged failure to properly support these individuals’ needs, leaving them to oscillate between crime, homelessness, and hospitalization.

“They’re well known to many, many service providers, but they’re not improving,” says Somers. “Our resources are apparently not being applied to their best effect.”

“It’s not simply a matter of figuring out a way to strap an automatic methadone-administration backpack onto people so they’re getting it all the time,” he adds. “We need to think more expansively about the supports and interventions that are necessary for people to recover from an addiction.”

Further government intervention may be necessary

Canada is not alone in claims of inadequate government assistance. In an accompanying perspective to the study, two Australian academics underlined the need for comprehensive government intervention to expand access to methadone and suboxone programs.

They also decried the lack of educational support – a critical resource in stigma reduction and increasing participation in programs.

“If the U.S. government wants to reduce the unconscionable toll that opioid overdose deaths is taking among its citizens, then it needs to adopt the effective public health approaches advocated by expert committees and Commissions,” they say.

For now, the crisis deepens with double-digit growth in cross-continent mortality figures – 2016’s total was a 22% jump over 2015.

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Barry is a journalist, editor, and marketer for several media outlets including HeadStuff, The Media Editor, and Buttonmasher Magazine. He earned his Master of the Arts in Journalism from Dublin City University in 2017 and moved to Toronto to pursue a career in the media. Barry is passionate about communicating and debating culture, science, and politics and their collective global impact.