Despite the demonstrated benefits of methadone maintenance, there have been concerns about the ethics, necessity and expense of maintaining addicts on methadone indefinitely. The inability of many patients to achieve normative levels of psychosocial functioning with methadone, combined with widely held attitudes favoring drug abstinence over replacement medication, has led to attempts to promote time-limited methadone treatment. This paper reviews the published research literature on post-discharge outcomes of patients exiting from extended methadone detoxification, “abstinence-oriented” methadone programs, and regular methadone maintenance programs. Virtually all of these studies document high rates of relapse to opioid use after methadone treatment is discontinued. Most of the patients studied left treatment without meeting clinical criteria for detoxification, although high relapse rates were also reported for patients who completed this program. The detrimental consequences of leaving methadone treatment are dramatically indicated by greatly increased death rates following discharge. Until more is learned about how to improve post-detoxification outcomes for methadone patients, treatment providers and regulatory/funding agencies should be very cautious about imposing disincentives and structural barriers that discourage or impede long-term opiate replacement therapy.
Leaving methadone treatment: Lessons learned, lessons forgotten, lessons ignored