Making methadone in California more accessible to help fight opioid overdoses

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

California has among the nation’s most restrictive laws when it comes to prescribing methadone. Newly proposed legislation aims to change that.

SAN DIEGO — As the number of fentanyl-related deaths continues to skyrocket, one of the most effective treatments for opioid addiction is also one of the hardest to access. 

California

California has among the United States’ most restrictive laws when it comes to prescribing methadone, according to one state lawmaker who is now working to make it the most accessible.

“It is shocking this is still on the books at this point,” said San Diegan Gretchen Burns Bergman, who added that the state’s decades-old laws regulating methadone, which is used to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms, are leading to more and more overdose deaths.

“It’s insane given the crisis that we’re in, losing so many lives,” she told CBS 8.  

Opioid overdose deaths in California have increased dramatically in recent years, with nearly 7,400 deaths by the end of 2022.

As founder of the non-profit A New Path, or Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing, Bergman credits methadone for saving her own son’s life.

Life-saving treatment

“I watched him quit heroin, go back to school with methadone and re-build his life,” Bergman said.  

“Methadone is the most effective treatment to help people get off of deadly drugs,” said San Francisco Assembly Member Matt Haney, who is now leading the charge to make methadone more accessible.

“We have the most restrictive policies in the country,” Haney added. “We are way out of step with where the rest if the world is on this.”

In many European countries including Canada and Australia, methadone can be dispensed at pharmacies like other prescription medications.

In California, it is largely restricted to methadone clinics where people seeking addiction treatment have to line up every day to get their dosage.

“Imagine having to go every single day to line up to get your medication,” Haney added. “How can you hold a job? How can you support yourself? And that’s what we’re doing to these people, when they’re just trying to do the right thing and get off of deadly drugs.”

Haney’s proposed legislation would loosen those restrictions, allowing doctors to prescribe patients up to a three-day supply of methadone, which would align California with newly-revised federal guidelines.

“Right now, we treat you like you’re the problem, and we make it harder and harder on you to do anything,” he said,  “and the result is, we are losing these people.”

Why are California’s methadone policies so restrictive?

“California is still way behind,” Haney said. “Our laws regarding methadone were put into place decades ago in the Vietnam war era.”

“Even though these regulations were well-intentioned, they have actually created much more barriers for people,” said Dr. Leslie Suen, who teaches at UC San Francisco and is speaking for herself on this issue.

Suen pointed out that California’s stringent methadone policies were formed during the nation’s ‘War on Drugs,’ which focused on drug use as a criminal issue, rather than a matter of public health.

“It’s more punishing people than trying to bring them in and help them with drug addiction,” Suen said. “A lot of the laws are still echoing that punitive response to this day.” 

This new effort to modernize California’s rules, though, have also raised some concerns.

“The devil’s in the details, as they say,” said Jason Kletter,  president of California Opioid Maintenance Providers, representing 120 treatment facilities statewide serving 40,000 patients.

He said that while his group supports the intent of this proposal to increase access, he wants more safeguards in place to prevent misuse of the medication, pointing to data from a number of studies.

“When methadone is prescribed for unsupervised use, it results in increases in overdoes and death, and so we want to prevent that from happening,” Kletter said.  

“I think those concerns are valid,” Suen said, adding that this proposed legislation requires any doctor prescribing take-home doses of methadone to meet strict guidelines already set by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“At the federal level they’ve already implemented a lot of restrictions and a lot of safeguards in place,” she added.

Supporters of this new bill are also hopeful that if access to methadone is expanded, the stigma surrounding this treatment option will diminish.

“It’s most effective of all, but it’s the most stigmatized,” said Gretchen Burns Bergman, who added this bill could help counter that negative perception of methadone, instead affirming it as a viable and extremely valuable treatment option.

“Really what it is doing is saving people’s lives,” she said. “Allowing them a chance to re-build their lives.”

If ultimately passed by the Assembly and State Senate and signed by the governor, these new regulations could be in place beginning in 2025. 

For more information on AB 2115, click here

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.

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