I’d like to share a recent email exchange with a reader. The post is long, but there are several interesting aspects to the discussion. I’ve removed the conversational parts, as well as the identifying information.
The initial message:
I was an intravenous heroin user for three years. After treatment I was able to stay clean for 6 months… Well apparently to most people I was not clean because I was on Suboxone, but to me I was clean. People are so very discouraging when you tell them you’re clean and they find out you are on Suboxone. It hurts because of how much hard work you put in. I did well for six months, but then I relapsed and used for 5 days. After a short binge I again stopped, continued Suboxone and used once more for one day alone.
All of these relapses were with my girlfriend, and she used one extra time while I was working. She overdosed all three times she used. Her mother found her the second time in her room almost lifeless, and I was with her the other two times. I acted very quickly, giving her CPR immediately and calling 911 without the least bit of hesitation, as did her mother.
My girlfriend) is not on Suboxone, but I stayed on every day other than the times we used. I am pretty educated about opiates in general and I understand that she overdosed because of her lack of tolerance. I have read something you said before: A person on Suboxone maintenance has the tolerance of someone who takes 100mg of oxycodone a day. I need to know, for the sake of her life, my life or someone else’s life, if ever in a dire, life threatening situation and for some crazy reason 911 isn’t an option, could you melt down a Suboxone strip and inject the overdosed person and use it like Narcan if you absolutely had to? Or do you think I’m nuts for even asking?
One more topic… I obsess over heroin every day. It’s so bad that I sit with a calculator and tell myself, “alright, if I stay clean for these next two years and I finish my degree and start my career making this much salary then I can spend this much a day on heroin and it will total x amount of dollars a year and subtracted from my salary I will still have more than enough to survive.” How sick is that? It’s disgusting. It’s an absolute obsession of the mind. I seriously convince myself that with the right amount of steady income I could actually be a functioning addict.
Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it so much.
My Reply:
Your email shows the incredible danger associated with use of intravenous opioids. I remember how impressed I was, when I was a resident in anesthesiology, over how the human body is SO strong and restorative, that we can survive and recover from horrible injuries… yet how fragile we are, that a lack of oxygen for only several minutes can cause death. Injecting opioids is a very effective, targeted way to kill a person. Doctors and nurses do not inject narcotics unless the patient is being monitored, usually using a ‘pulse oximeter’ to monitor the level of oxygen in the blood. Yet people with far less training are injecting the same drugs, not only without monitoring, but even in the absence of a non-impaired observer. It is no wonder that there are so many deaths from opioid dependence.
You probably know how I feel about being ‘clean’; people on buprenorphine are clean enough, in my opinion, to be considered sober. People on buprenorphine become fully tolerant to the effects at the mu receptor; there might be very minor effects at the kappa receptor, that may or may not have very minor cognitive effects…. but people take chronic medications for MANY illnesses, and some degree of sedation occurs with most of them, including medications for high blood pressure, migraine headaches, and seizure disorders. Should we consider all of THOSE people to be ‘not really clean’ too?
The question about using Suboxone to reverse overdose is very interesting– and shows that you have a good understanding of what is going on with medications like buprenorphine (in Suboxone).
One of my patients has described how he saved his girlfriend’s life by injecting Suboxone. He says that she was unresponsive and barely breathing, and out of desperation he put an 8 mg tablet of Suboxone in her mouth. When she didn’t respond after a minute or two, he quickly dissolved a tablet of Suboxone and injected it into her arm. He claims that she woke up 30 seconds later.
I’m glad his girlfriend survived, but I do NOT recommend that anyone rely on this approach to save a life. The most appropriate action, of course, is to do whatever one can to find appropriate treatment, and stop accepting the huge risks associated with IV injection of opioids. If a person has overdosed, call 911 immediately. The brain starts to die in about 3 minutes. Some parts of the country have instituted programs that provide naloxone injection kits for people addicted to opioids; injecting a pure antagonist like naloxone (Narcan) is much safer than injecting the partial agonist, buprenorphine.
The outcome after injecting Suboxone depends on a number of factors, including the person’s tolerance level and the presence or absence of other respiratory depressants. If a person has only used opioids– no benzodiazepines or barbiturates or alcohol— then in theory, injecting Suboxone would rescue the person from overdose. Both parts of the medication would contribute to reversing the effects of opioids; the naloxone (to a small extent) and the buprenorphine, which would have most of the effect. The ceiling effect of buprenorphine should prevent respiratory arrest in any person, as long as no other respiratory depressants are around.
But– one CANNOT expect the ceiling effect’s protection in the presence of other respiratory depressants. If other depressants are present, opioid tolerance becomes a big issue. I’ll describe two cases to demonstrate:
– Let’s take the low-tolerance scenario, with a person who has never used opioids or benzodiazepines, who ‘sniffs’ 40 mg of oxycodone and 10 mg of alprazolam. The risk of overdose would be high in that situation. And if, during overdose, someone injected Suboxone, the opioid effects of buprenorphine would be as great, or greater, than the opioid effects of oxycodone— so the person’s condition would likely worsen. (Note that I’m ignoring the effects of naloxone. Naloxone’s clinical effect last only about 20 minutes. That effect might help the person in this scenario, but it is hard to predict whether the naloxone would out-compete the buprenorphine that is also being injected. People who have injected Suboxone in the past tell me that they found are no difference between injecting Suboxone vs. injecting plain buprenorphine. That wouldn’t surprise me, given the high-affinity binding properties of buprenorphine.
– For the high-tolerance case, let’s take someone who is using 150 mg of oxycodone per day, but on this occasion took an amount of heroin equal to 300 mg of oxycodone. Let’s assume that there are no other depressants on board. In this case, injecting buprenorphine would be expected, theoretically, to block the effects of heroin, and not only wake the person, but precipitate withdrawal. Even if other respiratory depressants are on board, the buprenorphine would likely save the person from overdose, because the opioid effects of buprenorphine are significantly BELOW the person’s tolerance level, and below the effects of the heroin that is causing overdose.
Essentially, the high-affinity binding of buprenorphine displaces other opioids, causing an opioid effect equivalent to 60-100 mg of oxycodone. If the person’s tolerance is higher than that, the result will be precipitated withdrawal. If tolerance is lower, the result will be greater opioid intoxication.
I will stress, again, that the thing to do in case of overdose is to call 911. An even better thing to do would be to get help for anyone you know who is injecting heroin, and get help NOW—as the risks of IV drug use are very high, and nobody believes that he/she will be the next person to die. If you are in a situation where someone else is overdosing, and you inject that person with Suboxone or any other substance other than Narcan, you will likely be prosecuted, and convicted, for manslaughter.
The obsession described in your message is typical, and is the hallmark of opioid dependence. In my opinion, we (psychiatrists) should see ‘obsession’ as the primary defect in cases of addiction, as obsession is what destroys personality, undermines self-esteem, and crowds out other interests and interpersonal relationships. As I’ve written before, buprenorphine’s unique properties allow it to reduce or eliminate the obsession for opioids. Buprenorphine, I believe, is an effective, targeted way to treat opioid dependence.
His message back:
Being a psychiatrist, what are your thoughts on that obsessive thinking? I hate meetings and the 12-step programs. I lived in a half-way house for a month and a half that required 3 meetings per day. I agree with you that they create a fabricated sense of happiness and self-worth. Do you recommend staying on Suboxone for an extended period, especially during a time where i am still having these thoughts? And because of the way I feel toward meetings should I seek a psychiatrist and try to explain my thought process in order to try and change it? What would you recommend to someone in my situation who obsesses to that degree, and hypothetically plans his future around heroin?
Me Again:
I have seen SO many people who stopped Suboxone, then relapsed years later and lost a great deal. I’ve seen obituaries of former patients who used to be on Suboxone. If a person can take the medication without too much hassle— i.e. has a doctor who allows ‘remission treatment’ without making the person feel like a second-class citizen– then long-term Suboxone provides for the best chance of doing well in life, in my opinion.
Other than buprenorphine, the best ‘treatment’ for the obsession, in my opinion, is fear. Step programs tap into that fear, by emphasizing powerlessness— the realization that using even one time will definitely, without a doubt, lead to your destruction. Every thought about using should be confronted with that reality— that if you use, you will die. Relapse often starts with the idea that maybe the person can get away with it, maybe just once… so to stay sober, the person must KNOW that there is no way to try it, even once. That is a bummer, but not the end of the world! Humans love to feel powerful, but attendance at meetings helps reinforce the reality, and the value, of powerlessness. I’ve written about my own experiences back in 1993, when the realization of my powerlessness caused my desire to use to suddenly disappear. If only I could have remembered that powerlessness, even as my life got better!
I do not think that psychotherapy is all that helpful for obsessions. In fact, I think that psychotherapy can be dangerous, if it leads to the thought that you have everything figured out— a thought that the addicted personality loves to run with!
The challenge when treating with buprenorphine is to instill and reinforce the knowledge of powerlessness, even while treating the obsession for opioids with a highly-effective medication. The thought process becomes a little more complicated, but not impossible to grasp.


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