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Grant funds methadone alternative

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36;128,000 federal grant will give Southern Oregon physicians a new tool to treat drug addiction.

Doctors and drug-treatment counselors will use the grant to learn more about buprenorphine, a drug that was approved in 2002 by the federal Food and Drug Administration for treating opiate addiction.

Drug users' main treatment option right now is methadone, which is dispensed only at a few heavily supervised clinics in larger cities. Buprenorphine works like methadone to satisfy addicts' craving, but unlike methadone, it cannot produce altered consciousness when overused.

Federal public-health officials hope that allowing physicians to dispense buprenorphine will encourage more drug users in rural areas to seek treatment.

The federal Center for Substance Abuse grant covers Coos, Curry, Douglas, Lane, Jackson, Josephine, Deschutes and Klamath counties. It's one of just three awarded around the United States.

Oregon Health & Science University developed the grant proposal to reach about 3,200 people in the eight-county region (including about 660 in Jackson County) who are dependent on illegal drugs such as heroin and prescription drugs such as oxycodone.

Buprenorphine will be available through physicians who have been trained in its use. Physicians, nurses, pharmacists and managers of the counties' drug-treatment programs met in Canyonville last weekend to talk about how the drug works and discuss ways to incorporate its use into existing treatment programs.

Dr. Jim Shames, who works with Jackson County drug users, said buprenorphine probably will be most useful for relatively new opiate addicts who have not yet built up a tolerance for large quantities of drugs.

It's not going to replace methadone, Shames said, noting that buprenorphine cannot be absorbed in the brain in sufficient quantities to satisfy veteran addicts' craving. It's going to be a nice additional tool to treat opiate addictions.

Shames said it's too early to say whether buprenorphine will alleviate any of the problems created by budget cutbacks at Medford's methadone treatment clinics. More than 100 recovering drug users in Jackson and Josephine counties will lose their methadone March 1, when the Oregon Health Plan eliminates drug-treatment benefits for many people.

Buprenorphine's cost is also a factor. At &

36;300 for a month's dosage, the drug will be almost 50 percent more expensive than methadone, and insurance companies have not yet determined whether they will pay for it.

How this is going to play out I'm not sure, said Steve Gallon, an OHSU psychologist who organized the Canyonville conference.

Shames said buprenorphine's availability will draw more primary care physicians into drug treatment and broaden physicians' knowledge of opiate addiction.

The more we see drug addiction as a chronic disease, Shames said, the better off we're going to be.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492, or e-mail