(CBS News) Heroin addicts are often prescribed treatment with another opiate drug, methadone, to help them through painful withdrawal symptoms.
A new study suggests it might be cheaper and more effective to just use actual heroin.
Medically-prescribed heroin, known as diacetylmorphine, was found to be more cost-effective at helping ween addicts from opioid dependence than methadone maintenance treatment, the study shows.
For the study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, researchers used data from an earlier study on medically-prescribed heroin along with drug data from British Columbia, to find out more about opioid dependance. They calculated the cost-effectiveness ratio of diacetylmorphine and methadone over 1, 5, and 10-year periods, as well as lifetime benchmarks.
Not only was heroin more effective at giving recovering addicts more "quality-adjusted life-years" (7.96 years) than methadone (7.46 years), it cost society less to treat each addict, reductions that were mostly credited to less criminal activity, the researchers said. A patient in methadone therapy costs society $1.14 million, the researchers estimated, while a person treated with diacetylmorphine cost society $1.09 million.
"Our model indicated that diacetylmorphine would decrease societal costs, largely by reducing costs associated with crime, and would increase both the duration and quality of life of treatment recipients," writes study leader Dr. Aslam Anis, professor at the University of British Columbia school of population and public health, and his co-authors. "Because opioid users commit less crime and have lower rates of health care use and death while in treatment, the benefits in cost and health utility attributable to diacetylmorphine stemmed chiefly from its capacity to retain patients in treatment for longer periods than with methadone maintenance treatment."
Diacetylmorphine had been proven more effective for treatment in the past, but it's direct costs -how much a vial would cost a hospital - are often higher than methadone. Previous studies have also shown that many people treated by methadone often go back to abusing drugs.
"The question I get most about heroin-assisted therapy is whether we can afford the increased direct costs of the treatment," study co-author Dr. Martin Schechter, a professor at UBC's school of population and public Health, said in a written statement. "What this study shows is that the more appropriate question is whether we can afford not to."
The Cleveland Clinic has more on heroin addiction.