Suboxone Use in Portland Creates Controversy

PORTLAND, Maine — Law enforcement agents and drug users in Portland are saying street abuse of Suboxone, a prescription drug intended to help individuals become less dependent on opiates such as heroin, is a new counterculture fad in Maine’s largest city.

But a top addiction rehabilitation doctor said Suboxone has been unfairly vilified and is a “fundamentally safe” lifeline for recovering addicts who may always need some form of medication to survive.

Sgt. Kevin Cashman, supervisor of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency’s Cumberland District Task Force, said different forms of Suboxone and its active ingredient, buprenorphine, began to emerge after prescription painkiller OxyContin, long a widely abused drug in Maine and elsewhere, was re-engineered.

“In the fall of 2010, when OxyContin tablets were reformulated to make them harder to abuse — harder to crush up and snort, harder to liquefy and inject — we started seeing the Suboxone sublingual strips,” said Cashman. “You could hide it inside the folds of envelopes. The [Cumberland County] jail started discovering that. They’re very concealable on the person. You’re not going to find them in a pat-down of a person, so they became a preference.”

In addition to the thin strips that dissolve on the users’ tongues, Cashman said agents continued to also see the street sale of the prescription Suboxone pills — called “stoppies” in slang because of their octagonal stop-sign shape. Suboxone is the brand name of a prescription drug made up of opioid medication buprenorphine and naloxone, an element intended to limit the euphoric sensations caused by opiates and therefore limit the abuse of the drug.

“People were being prescribed it, and just like methadone or any other replacement drug, it was being diverted,” he said. “People were getting prescriptions and then dealing it. It’s definitely one of the top diverted drugs that we deal with. But the majority of the people [found with Suboxone] were ‘polydrug’ addicts. They were using anything they could get their hands on. We rarely ever get it just by itself, as the single drug of choice.”

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