There were gasps in 2012 when the Hazelden Foundation announced it would add prescription drugs to its time-tested and rigid philosophy of treating opioid addicts through abstinence and counseling.
One blogger asked whether it was “the beginning of the end of the abstinence rule?” Others said it undermined Hazelden’s Minnesota Model because the drugs would mimic the effect of opioids in the brain, contradicting the cold turkey nature of abstinence.
And the criticisms weren’t coming just from the outside. Addiction counselor Kellie Lund vented about the decision in a four-page letter to Hazelden’s medical director, Dr. Marvin Seppala.
“My fear was that … addicts would relate to the medication as a street drug and not a medication because of its slight mood-altering properties,” Lund said. “I was worried that it would keep the active addiction alive. I was worried it would blunt their emotional and spiritual healing.”
Fast-forward to today, and more than just Hazelden’s name has changed (it is now the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation). The organization is producing some of its first research showing a payoff from adding the drug Suboxone to its opioid addiction treatment. And Lund is one of its biggest champions; she even wrote Seppala again to share her turnaround.
“I hear from clients about how many treatments they’ve had in the past without … this medication, and how many relapses they’ve had,” said Lund, who supervises Hazelden’s residential care center in St. Paul. “And now … they feel hopeful for the first time in their lives.”
Suboxone contains two active ingredients, buprenorphine and naloxone, which mimic opioids in the brain and reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms. The drug, which consists of strips that dissolve under patients’ tongues, is what doctors tried to get to pop star Prince amid his struggles with opioids.
Hazelden leaders rationalized that the drug was unique because it replaces opioids in the brain but doesn’t leave patients impaired. “They’re able to focus more and get more out of the treatment,” Lund said.
Hazelden’s research results aren’t public yet, not until they are published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
But Seppala offered one nugget: The share of opioid addicts dropping out of treatment prematurely has declined from 25 percent to 5 percent since Hazelden added this medication assistance.