2 Investigates: Trading addictions

by: Tom Regan Updated:

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ATLANTA —

Trading one addiction for another is how some drug addicts and counselors describe a popular treatment for curing addiction to pain pills and heroin.

The drug, which comes in the form of a pill and a strip that you place under your tongue, is called Suboxone.

It's been praised by addiction experts as an effective way to wean addicts off opiates. But critics have said the drug is over-prescribed and abused, and can lead to dependence and relapse.

Addiction to heroin and prescription opiates, like Oxycontin, is soaring in Georgia and across the country. At one time, Methadone was a leading drug replacement therapy, but carried the risk of deadly overdose.

Now a synthetic opiate, Buprenorphine, also known as Suboxone, is widely prescribed to wean addicts from opiates.

But two recovering drug addicts who didn't want to reveal their names told Channel 2's Tom Regan it did just the opposite.

"Did you find you were getting addicted to the Suboxone?" Regan asked one of the women.

"I did, and eventually it was just, the Suboxone wasn't enough for me anymore. I still craved the high. So I actually went out and started doing the pain pills I was doing before I got on the Suboxone," she told Regan

"I was completely dependent on it," the other recovering drug addict told Regan. "And I still wanted my drug, I still wanted to be doing Oxycontin and heroin."

The two women are now at Willingway Hospital, an assistance-based addiction treatment center in Statesboro, Ga.

The facility has treated hundreds of patients for Suboxone dependency. The women told Regan prior attempts at getting clean and sober with Suboxone backfired. They repeatedly relapsed and even sold Suboxone prescriptions on the street.

"When I just wanted my drug of choice, I would sell them all and keep going to the doctor," one of the women told Regan.

The market for Suboxone is booming. The drug has produced over $1.3 billion in sales and is growing by an estimated 10 percent a year, more than Viagra. It has an inhibiting agent that is supposed to minimize risk of abuse.

"I like it. It's a miracle drug. It works better than anything for narcotic dependence," said Dave Davis, director of psychiatry at Piedmont Hospital, who has been an outspoken advocate of Suboxone.

He told Regan he has prescribed Suboxone to dozens of his patients along with traditional drug counseling.

"Suboxone stops their craving, they have no reason to get high. As a matter of fact, if you're on Suboxone and you go out and shoot heroin you don't get high," Davis told Regan.

But Dr. Steven Lynn, the director of adult addiction at abstinence-based Ridgeway Institute in Smyrna, Ga. believes extended use of Suboxone creates more problems than it solves for most opiate addicts.

"It is a drug of abuse. It has been abused widely," Lynn told Regan. "People don't take a pill and get abstinent from drugs. That never works for addiction. The underlying addiction must be treated."

Despite the controversy over using synthetic opiates to treat drug addiction, the Federal Drug Administration recently approved the sale of generic versions of Suboxone.

It seems to be a drug hailed a miracle by some addicts, a curse by others.

"That's exactly what it is. It's trading one drug for another," one of the recovering drug addicts told Regan.

Regan contacted the drug company that makes Suboxone. They sent him a statement which said, in part, "Suboxone is a trusted and proven treatment for opiate dependence. The company designed the drug to discourage misuse and abuse and Suboxone should be used as part of a complete treatment plan that includes counseling."