Methadone: An Addictive Remedy to Heroin

The door of the Chicago Treatment and Counseling Center methadone clinic on Roosevelt Road in Cicero, Illinois displays which credit cards are accepted inside (Patrick Martin/Medill).

By Patrick Martin

Alvin Darton is a homeless, HIV positive heroin addict who tried using methadone to control his addiction, but withdrawing from the medication left him feeling as though his entire body was collapsing.

“It’s like cold water rushing through your bones and veins; you have diarrhea, aches and pains, and no appetite,” Darton said.   After seven stints of inpatient treatment, he is currently a client at the Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center, which does not distribute methadone. Darton said he didn’t want to use methadone, but he continues to use heroin, and that addiction often leaves him feeling deeply depressed.

“I feel suicidal, I just want to quit,” said Darton. “I don’t look at it as hurting myself, I look at it as ending the pain.”

While it reduces the desire for heroin, methadone is also highly addictive and can be used indefinitely.

“Most of our clients are content to stay on their stable dose,” said Bill Aitcheson, director of the Chicago Treatment and Counseling Center, which operates a methadone program. Many of his clients have been coming to the clinic for five to 15 years.

Aitcheson said methadone has given heroin addicts the stability they need to get their lives back on track, but distributing the drug is still a business.

“It can be very profitable,” Aitcheson said. His clients pay $45 to $50 per week for their treatment, and they can get $100 deleted from their bill if they refer a new addict to the clinic. Former clients who have an outstanding balance can have their debt forgiven if they return to the program.

A 2011 survey of 25 Chicago area methadone clinics showed that over half required full or partial payment by their clients.

“They will dispense it as long as people want it,” said Ralph Harris, director of Campaign for a Drug Free West Side. Harris works with individuals on the West Side who have completed substance abuse treatment and are attempting to re-integrate into the community.

Harris said methadone clinics exploit addicts for money and have no motivation to get their customers to stop using the drug. Some addiction counselors have personal experience with the methadone.

“I was on methadone, it was more powerful than all the drugs I had ever done,” said Lee McClain, who had snorted heroin for 15 years before starting methadone. McClain didn’t want to become addicted to methadone, and by his fourth dose he was surreptitiously throwing away the medication.

An addiction counselor for 10 years, McClain claims methadone clinics have their clients “by the jugular vein”, and that methadone should only be used for only a few months.

Indeed, not all methadone users want to use the drug indefinitely. Former tattoo artist Randy Brasfield used heroin for 13 years. He has been using methadone for the past year and plans to wean himself off of the drug over the next 12 months at Chicago Treatment and Counseling Center.

“This is a big band-aid,” Brasfield said noting that methadone is only a temporary solution to his addiction, “but it’s the closest to being clean I’ve been for a long time.”

The door of the Chicago Treatment and Counseling Center methadone clinic on Roosevelt Road in Cicero, Illinois displays which credit cards are accepted inside. (Patrick Martin/Medill)