The United States is in the middle of an unprecedented opioid epidemic. It’s estimated that between 26.4 million and 36 million people abuse opioids worldwide, with an approximate 2.1 million Americans suffering from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid painkillers and another 467,000 are addicted to heroin. The consequences of this epidemic have been devastating.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, “more people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than any year on record, and the majority of drug overdose deaths (more than six out of 10) involved an opioid.” Since 1999, the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids nearly quadrupled. While prescription pain medication deaths remain far too high, there’s also been a sharp increase in heroin-involved deaths as well as an increase in deaths involving synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.
How Vivitrol Treats Opioid Addiction
Vivitrol is a prescription injectable medication used to treat alcohol dependence and prevent opioid dependence after detox. For the injection to be effective, a person must stop using drugs or alcohol before starting Vivitrol.
The active ingredient in Vivitrol, naltrexone, works as a “blocker.” It attaches to receptors in the brain and blocks the pleasurable feelings associated with opioid use.
A single shot of Vivitrol, given in the buttocks, lasts for four weeks and eliminates the need for daily doses of medications such as methadone. The major criticism of this drug is that a single injection costs $1,000 and because the drug hasn’t been around for a long time, experts don’t agree on how effective it is in treating opioid addiction and dependence.
Why Prisons Are Using Vivitrol Injections
At the Sheridan Correctional Center, which is 70 miles southwest of Chicago, the cost of locking up a drug offender costs about $25,000 per year. Proponents of Vivitrol say that using the drug could save money compared to the costs associated with housing a drug offender. Vivitrol is emerging as the country searches for ways to ease the opioid epidemic that affects an estimated 15% of the U.S. prison population.
Researchers recognize addiction as a relapsing brain disease with medication being an important part of therapy, but most jails and prisons reject methadone and buprenorphine because they are habit-forming and can be abused by prisoners. Naturally, for many experts, Vivitrol seems like the best alternative.
Supporters say that prisoners with a substance use disorder can be released instead of serving more time in jail, saving taxpayers a significant amount of money. Although a single Vivitrol injection costs $1,000, it only adds up to $12,000 a year per inmate, which is less than half of what it would cost to house an inmate for a year.
Is Vivitrol Effective?
In the biggest study, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 300 offenders, most of them heroin users on probation or parole, were randomly assigned to receive either Vivitrol or brief counseling and referral to a treatment program.
After six months, the group taking Vivitrol had a lower rate of relapse—43% compared with 64%. A year after treatment stopped, there had been no overdoses in the Vivitrol group but seven overdoses, including three deaths, in the other group. But addiction is stubborn. When the injections stopped, many in the study relapsed, and a year later, relapse rates looked the same in the two groups.
Still, many experts believe Vivitrol can help fight the opioid epidemic. David Farabee, a UCLA professor who leads a Vivitrol study in a New Mexico jail said, “You couldn’t design something better for the criminal justice system. There’s been pushback with other medications, people saying, ‘We’re just changing one drug for another.’ That argument goes out the window when you’re talking about a blocker [like Vivitrol].”
While there are still many skeptics of the drug, some former inmates claim that the injection works.
“I don’t have cravings,” said Christopher Wolf, a 36-year-old from Centerville, Ohio, “I see how much better life is. It gets better really fast.” Wolf had already served prison time for nonviolent crimes when he was ordered into treatment for a heroin addiction. The judge in the case suggested Vivitrol. Three months later, Wolf is clean and working full-time as a cook.
Other inmates, such as Joshua Meador, a 28-year-old inmate at Sheridan, are hoping to get into the Vivitrol program at their prisons. Before incarceration, Meador abused methadone and buprenorphine. When he was given take-home doses of methadone for the weekend, he would sell the drug to pay for heroin. “When I’m on Vivitrol, I can’t get high. The drug has no street value or abuse potential.”
Prisons in Illinois, Vermont, Wyoming, and Wisconsin are trying out Vivitrol on a small scale. In Michigan, Vivitrol is being offered to parolees who commit small crimes if addiction is the reason for their new offense. The federal Bureau of Prisons ran a field trial at a prison in Texas and plans to expand the program to the Northeast next year. The drug’s manufacturer hopes prisons will be a gateway to a larger market where more people can benefit from Vivitrol.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an opioid addiction, you’re not alone, and treatment is available. At The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake, we offer a wide variety of treatment programs designed to help you detox, overcome your addiction, and live a happy life in recovery. To learn more about how our team can help, contact us today.
About the Epidemic. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2016, from http://www.hhs.gov/opioids/about-the-epidemic/
Drug Addiction Treatment in the Criminal Justice System. (2014, April). Retrieved November 29, 2016, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/criminal-justice/drug-addiction-treatment-in-criminal-justice-system
Johnson, C. K. (2016, November 14). Prisons fight opioids with $1,000 injection: Does it work? Retrieved November 29, 2016, from http://gazette.com/prisons-fight-opioids-with-1000-injection-does-it-work/article/feed/421253
Written by: Christina Bockisch