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Drug Alcohol Depend. 2003 May 21;70(2 Suppl):S3-11.

From morphine clinics to buprenorphine: regulating opioid agonist treatment of addiction in the United States.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, University of Maryland School of Medicine, 701 West Pratt Street, Baltimore, MD 21201, USA.


The practice of prescribing opioid drugs for opioid dependent patients in the U.S. has been subjected to special government scrutiny for almost 100 years. From 1920 until 1964, doctors who used opioids to treat addicts risked federal and/or state criminal prosecution. Although that period ended when oral methadone maintenance was established as legitimate medical practice, public concern about methadone diversion and accidental overdose fatalities, combined with political pressure from both hostile bureaucracies and groups committed to drug-free treatments, led to the development of unprecedented and detailed Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations that specified the manner in which methadone (and later, levo-alpha-acetyl methadol, or levomethadyl acetate, (LAAM)) could be provided. In 1974, Congress gave the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) additional oversight of methadone treatment programs. Efforts to liberalize the FDA regulations over the past 30 years have been resisted by both the DEA and existing treatment providers. Additional flexibility for clinicians may evolve from the most recent effort to create an accreditation system to replace some of the FDA regulations. The development of buprenorphine, a partial opioid agonist, as an effective treatment for opioid addiction reopened the possibility for having a less burdensome oversight process, especially because of its reduced toxicity if ingested by non-tolerant individuals. New legislation, the Drug Addiction Treatment Act (DATA) of 2000, created an opportunity for clinicians with special training to be exempted from both federal methadone regulations and the requirement to obtain a special DEA license when using buprenorphine to treat addicts. Some details of how the DATA was developed, moved through Congress, and signed into law are described.

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