Is the use of medications like methadone and buprenorphine simply replacing one addiction with another?
No. Buprenorphine and methadone are prescribed or administered under monitored, controlled conditions and are safe and effective for treating opioid addiction when used as directed. They are administered orally or sublingually (i.e., under the tongue) in specified doses, and their effects differ from those of heroin and other abused opioids.
Heroin, for example, is often injected, snorted, or smoked, causing an almost immediate "rush," or brief period of intense euphoria, that wears off quickly and ends in a "crash." The individual then experiences an intense craving to use the drug again to stop the crash and reinstate the euphoria.
The cycle of euphoria, crash, and craving—sometimes repeated several times a day—is a hallmark of addiction and results in severe behavioral disruption. These characteristics result from heroin’s rapid onset and short duration of action in the brain.
As used in maintenance treatment, methadone and buprenorphine are not heroin/opioid substitutes.
In contrast, methadone and buprenorphine have gradual onsets of action and produce stable levels of the drug in the brain. As a result, patients maintained on these medications do not experience a rush, while they also markedly reduce their desire to use opioids.
If an individual treated with these medications tries to take an opioid such as heroin, the euphoric effects are usually dampened or suppressed. Patients undergoing maintenance treatment do not experience the physiological or behavioral abnormalities from rapid fluctuations in drug levels associated with heroin use. Maintenance treatments save lives—they help to stabilize individuals, allowing treatment of their medical, psychological, and other problems so they can contribute effectively as members of families and of society.
As a result of scientific research, we know that addiction is a disease that affects both brain and behavior.