Buprenorphine Saved My Health and Maybe a Few Banks

A new drug approved last year to treat heroin addiction is gaining acceptance, and I say it's about time. I'm a former bank robber and ex-heroin addict who kicked his habit years ago with the help of the drug, which was experimental then. But you should be hearing a lot more about it now.

The Federal Drug Administration approved buprenorphine hydrochloride last October. Now, doctors associated with the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic in San Francisco have announced they will use it to help addicts get through withdrawals.

We heroin addicts dread going through withdrawal. For some, going cold turkey in prison has been the only way to finally kick heroin. But by then, they may have left behind countless victims as they tried to feed the habit.

Over a quarter of a century ago, methadone was introduced for the maintenance of heroin addicts. As it turns out, methadone's high is as potent as heroin's, and most addicts find it even harder to kick. Now there is a whole new crop of methadone addicts who use heroin as a fallback.

In 1992, buprenorphine was in the experimental stage and not approved for treatment. That year, I again took up heroin after being paroled from a bank robbery conviction for which I did 12 years. My habit was spiraling out of control and the future was looking bleak.

Then a Bay Area doctor I knew, through some barely legal shenanigans, got me a prescription for buprenorphine. He wasn't sure if it would work, but thought it had potential. My desperation to kick heroin after 45 years of on-and-off use and my lack of future prospects made it worth a shot.

Only one local pharmacy handled buprenorphine at the time, dispensing it in little gelatin squares like chewing gum. The theory is that the drug goes to the same receptors in the brain as opiates do, and blocks them off.

I took the dosage, stopped shooting up heroin and felt nothing. By nothing, I mean I felt no high and no withdrawal symptoms, either. After one week my habit was gone -- without the chills, sweats, severe nausea, dry heaves, diarrhea, horrible muscle cramps, extreme anxiety and sleeplessness that characterize heroin withdrawal as the body comes back to life.

It was the first habit I had ever kicked in my long life of addiction outside of jail. The drug may have spared my life and a few banks at the same time.

Over 75 percent of the bank robbers I met in prison were heroin addicts who turned to robbing banks to feed their habits. After a successful robbery they could afford more drugs than before. So they increased their habit. That increased the horror of the prospect of withdrawal, which increased their will to rob. A vicious circle, littered with victims.

Buprenorphine's possible side effects are said to include cold and flu-like symptoms, headaches, nausea, sweating and mood swings. I did not experience any of these. If combined with alcohol, it can cause death from respiratory problems.

The one problem I did encounter was that, on my third day of buprenorphine, I decided I felt so good that I'd try to get high. When I used heroin I felt nothing. I then took twice my regular shot and still felt nothing. Buprenorphine in the system totally closes the door on opiates and makes it highly unlikely to overdose on heroin.

Today I've been clean for more than four years, and I no longer take buprenorphine.

Clinicians at Haight-Ashbury are expressing cautious optimism about the drug, noting that it doesn't work for some people and stressing that complex problems like drug addiction have no one-shot cure. Some doctors elsewhere say buprenorphine works for only a few.

But for me, buprenorphine was a miracle drug. I credit it with starting me down the path to sobriety, showing me that painless heroin withdrawal was a possibility. It helped me clear my habit, and it can't be abused because there is no high.

Buprenorphine has the potential to significantly lower the number of crimes committed by frantic heroin addicts, and could help reduce the startling number of inmates in American prisons on drug-related convictions.

Martin is co-author (with Peter Sussman) of "Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog" and has two published novels: "The Dishwasher" and "In the Hat." Martin currently lives in Hendersonville, Tenn., where he working on his third novel.

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