"To me, that seems highly unlikely," she says. "You don't need health insurance to go to a treatment center."

"I think most of them are just trying to get treated at low cost, which is obviously a tragedy."

Brennan is New York City's Special Narcotics Prosecutor, and her office is responsible for prosecuting drug crimes. It was created by the city's five district attorneys in the 1980s as a way to respond to a new epidemic of heroin and a corresponding citywide increase in violent crimes.

Brennan doesn't seem surprised, or especially concerned, to learn that people are using Craigslist to sell their detox meds. She notes that Craigslist drug sales have transpired on and off for years. "Our focus is on more of the major suppliers," she says. "But we do monitor Craigslist, and we do periodic sweeps there."

Addiction researcher Adam Bisaga says, “You wouldn’t get as high as with heroin. . . . But you’d still feel somewhat affected.”
Caleb Ferguson
Addiction researcher Adam Bisaga says, “You wouldn’t get as high as with heroin. . . . But you’d still feel somewhat affected.”

Brennan says that, in her experience, most dealers carry Suboxone as a way to keep their clientele happy; in recent years, her office has busted several drug rings that stock it alongside heroin, Xanax, and Percocet. Addicts buy Suboxone when they can't afford their drug of choice, or when they have a pressing social engagement that requires them not to turn up totally high.

"It's not being used in the context we've seen it to kick a habit or even to replace a narcotic dependence," she asserts. "What I've seen is not a real commitment to getting clean, it's just a way to control your habit a little bit better."

Mike Laverde agrees. He's a former heroin addict himself, now nine years sober and an intervention specialist with a Chicago company called Family First Intervention. Like Brennan, he sees black-market Suboxone users as just another subspecies of addict.

"They think they can take the Suboxone and come off drugs themselves," he says. "But they can't. The problem in the drugs department is them." Without actual treatment, Laverde says, addicts are very likely to fall back into dependence on their drug of choice. That practice—toggling back and forth between the drug you like and the drug that helps you avoid withdrawal—is known as "bridging."

"People cycle on and off, absolutely," says Jose Sanchez, a substance-use counselor at the nonprofit Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center. His clients, Sanchez explains, tell him they carefully plan out their drug use. "They'll stop taking the Suboxone for a couple days, so that by the third day they'll be able to feel that zing of the opiate, whether it's heroin or Oxycontin."

It's unlikely they'll ever really get clean that way, he adds. "It certainly could work. But I think to be successful, you need every bit of support you can get"—i.e., counseling and a doctor's supervision.

When someone self-medicates with Suboxone, Sanchez says, "You really can't judge how well the medicine's working for you. All you know is you feel good that day, and the next day you want to feel just as good."

If you wanted to kick an opiate habit the aboveground way, you might visit a doctor like Dana Jane Saltzman, an internist who's also one of the 1,600 doctors in New York State authorized to prescribe Suboxone. Her practice is hidden away in midtown, in a nondescript, five-story building not far from the marquee lights of the Ambassador Theater. She keeps two websites, one for her regular practice, and the other, NYCSuboxone.com, for people looking to get clean.

Saltzman's building is a little down at the heels, but her clientele is anything but. Most of her Suboxone patients, she says, are Wall Street guys, "masters of the universe types" who find themselves with a pain-pill addiction and a pressing need to get sober without cutting into their 100-hour workweeks.

"I see a lot of young men, very high-functioning, very ambitious and upwardly mobile," Saltzman says. Many of them are prescribed Oxycontin after they sustain sports injuries: shoulders, backs, knees. A client came to see her several weeks ago who'd been on the painkiller for two years before he realized he'd become dependent.

Buprenorphine is popular with Saltzman's patients and other opiate addicts for one basic reason: It too is an opiate.

"It hits and stimulates the same receptors in the brain that are affected by heroin or methadone," explains Adam Bisaga. He's a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and an addiction researcher at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

Like other opiates, buprenorphine binds to certain receptors in the brain. It's "stickier" than drugs like heroin, binding to those receptors faster and holding on longer: Morphine has a half-life of about two hours; buprenorphine's is anywhere from 24 to 60 hours.

Buprenorphine is also a partial opioid agonist. It doesn't fill up the brain's receptors as completely as heroin or painkillers do, making its effects much more muted than the intense euphoria heroin offers.

"It stimulates the receptors, but only to 50 percent," Bisaga explains. "At some point there's a ceiling, and no matter how much you take, you'll never get across that. It's like an electronic block on your gas pedal in a sports car."

To further limit its effects, Suboxone contains naloxone, an opiate blocker. The most famous naloxone-containing drug is Narcan, which can treat people during an overdose, and which has no known potential for abuse. Subutex, a Reckitt Benckiser-manufactured formulation that's pure buprenorphine, is more potent—and in greater demand on the black market. Saltzman says she won't prescribe it unless a patient has a proven allergy to naloxone.

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