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Concern in Wisconsin over Suboxone-Related Deaths

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The recent Suboxone-related deaths of two Milwaukee-area residents has drawn negative attention to federal rules that allow patients to use the buprenorphine-based drug at home, the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel reported April 2.

Some local officials blame wider availability of the drug for increasing the risk of abuse by recreational users. Milwaukee police said they saw evidence of illicit trafficking of Suboxone even before it was linked to the overdose deaths of teenager Madison Kiefer and college student Luke David Murphy.

Chuck Wood of the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department said informants noted that a street market for the drug has developed because recreational users have found a way to use Suboxone to get high. Suboxone was specifically designed to limit abuse potential by including the opiate antagonist naloxone in the formulation. “It was going to be so controlled,” Wood said. “Now we’re seeing it out in the community.”

An official with the federal Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) said the overdose deaths seem to be the tragic results of abuse rather than any inherent danger in Suboxone. “Suboxone is a very safe drug,” said Robert Lubran, SAMHSA’s director of pharmacologic therapies. “There’s a reason why they’re controlled substances — because they’re abusable.”

“It really does its job well,” said Jim Aker, a counselor at ProHealth Care, a program in Waukesha that has used Suboxone to treat 140 recovering addicts during the past two years.

Police believe that the two overdose deaths were the result of ingesting Suboxone along with other substances; some users incorrectly believe that Suboxone mitigates the effects of other drugs. Tim Baxter, medical director of Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals Inc., said Suboxone alone cannot trigger a fatal overdose. But he said it has been linked to 15 deaths nationally when combined with alcohol or other drugs.

Baxter said abuse has been tapering off, as drug users discover Suboxone’s limited potential for intoxication. “Some kids will decide, ’Oh, this sounds like fun, we’ll have a go,’” Baxter said. “They may try it once, but they go on to something else.”

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