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Evidence For Controlled Heroin Use?

Glascow / Caledonia University press release; 2/3/2005 
Originally posted: 2/5/2005 []
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Heroin can be taken in a controlled, non-intrusive fashion for an extended period – without the negative health and social outcomes normally associated with users of the class-A drug – according to researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Results also showed that some heroin users can maintain occupations and achieve educational qualifications, which are comparable with the general UK population and were considerably higher than found in typical heroin research.

The study by Dr David Shewan and Mr Phil Dalgarno was funded by the Chief Scientist Office and focused on 126 long-term heroin users, who were not receiving treatment for their drug use, recruited in the Glasgow area over a period of four years.

The research had the primary aim of assessing whether this ‘hidden’ population identified with drug treatment agencies.

Dr Shewan said:

“The study shows that while there was evidence of intensive risky patterns of drug use among the sample, there was equal evidence for planned and controlled patterns of use.

“Some drug-related negative health and social outcomes had occurred on a lifetime basis, but ongoing problems were rare and heroin was not a predictor in either context. In contrast to typical samples of heroin users these outcomes did not appear to be inevitable within the group sampled.”

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Study Criteria

Criteria for inclusion in the study were that participants had illicitly used opiates at least ten times in each of the previous two years with the average length of time participants had been using heroin was seven years. None of those taking part had received specialist addiction treatment for any drug including alcohol or had served a custodial sentence.

In the first phase of the study 30% (38) of the participants reported experiencing drug-related health problems, although in the majority of cases they did not require medical treatment with only four stating that they had attended hospital and another four seeing their own doctor. In general, the group seemed reasonably satisfied with their level of physical health – almost 48% described their health as ‘good’ with only 7% describing it as ‘bad’ or ‘fairly bad’.

In relation to negative social outcomes just 15% of the participants reported that their heroin use had been associated with family problems. Only one of the sample reported the break-up of a long-term relationship and no one reported an outcome such as a child being taken into care. Almost 60% reported a negative affect to their employment or education. However, only two people reported losing their jobs through their drug misuse.

At the end of the study, 6 participants (7%) of the follow-up sample had entered specialist treatment for their drug use.

There were no participants who died during the course of the study as the result of overdose or any other cause. Non-fatal overdose was assessed, with heroin although a factor in some overdoses, playing a much lesser role than alcohol, either alone or in combination with other non-opiate drugs. The most common overdose symptom was losing consciousness and being unable to be roused. A small number of participants reported collapsing in the street and a smaller number stated that they had experienced difficulty breathing. There was evidence of ‘experimental’ injecting of heroin and other drugs, but regular injecting was confined to a handful of problematic heroin users.

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Study Conclusions

Dr Shewan concluded:

“The concept of controlled drug use is still a largely unexplored area of drug research and these results should be treated with caution. Heroin is certainly not a safe drug. It is potentially dangerous and has been shown to be associated with a range of serious problems among users of the drug.

“However, this study shows that the chemical properties of specific substances, including heroin, should not be assumed to inevitably lead to addictive and destructive patterns of drug use. Drug research should incorporate this previously hidden population to more fully inform theory and practice. Psychological and social factors have to be taken into account when looking at how to deal with any form of addiction, including heroin addiction. When responding to drug use and drug problems, we should be looking at the person involved, and also the broader social environment. This is well recognised within drug treatment, and should be more widely recognised. To simply focus on a particular drug, be it heroin or alcohol, is unhelpful in terms of treatment and intervention, and criminal justice policy. To make bold statements about the War in Drugs helps nobody who actually has a problem in this domain.”

Note To News Editors

The sample comprised 94 males (75%) and 32 females (25%) with the majority of those taking part in a relationship and 33% had children. In contrast to the heroin population receiving treatment, most of the study sample (74%) were employed and well represented at the higher end of the employment sector – 34 (27%) were placed in occupational class 1 or 11. Full-time higher education students made up 11% of the group with the remaining 15% being unemployed. The group was well educated, with 81 (64%) having progressed to levels of education beyond secondary school, with only 6 (5%) reporting no educational qualifications.

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Report Requests

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Tel: 0141 331 8679
Mobile: 07751 194170

Jane Nower, Assistant PR Officer
Tel: 0141 331 8690



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Alexander DeLuca, M.D., FASAM

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Originally posted:  2/5/2005

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