It doesn’t surprise me that many people are hesitant about the concept of medication-assisted drug abuse treatment. Treating drug abuse with more drugs seems counterintuitive. But in my three decades working with individuals diagnosed with substance use disorders, I’ve seen far too much time devoted to discrediting medication-assisted treatment based on the misconception that it’s substituting one addiction for another.

Here’s the bottom line — it’s medication. And we treat the vast majority of diseases with medications.

Today, it’s an established fact within the treatment community that combining medication-assisted treatment with behavioral therapy is a proven method that often yields superior results for those suffering from substance use disorders.

Thankfully, attitudes surrounding the use of medication-assisted treatment are rapidly changing. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently released a first-of-its-kind report detailing the ongoing threat of drug addiction facing the country and a plan to tackle the issue.

In the report, Murthy urges doctors and policymakers to reevaluate and ramp up efforts to effectively combat the crisis. He goes on to discuss the under-utilized medication assisted-treatment (MAT) option in depth, stating that “MAT is a highly effective treatment option for individuals with alcohol and opioid use disorders. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated the efficacy of MAT at reducing illicit drug use and overdose deaths, improving retention in treatment and reducing HIV transmission.”

An example of the type of medication used in MAT to help combat substance use disorder is Buprenorphine, a partial opioid agonist that provides a moderate opioid-like effect, has recently gained a lot of attention. The drug has proven to be extremely effective in reducing substance-related cravings and addiction when taken daily. Like other medical substitutes, it decreases illegal drug use and dependency, stops potential criminal activity, and reduces the risk for infectious diseases, like HIV.

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A similar medication, Vivitrol, was recently introduced into an Ocean County jail with support from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Gov. Jim McGreevy. Being one of the state’s regions hit hardest by the drug epidemic, the introduction of Vivitrol into the Ocean County jail is designed to help ensure that those returning to the work force can successfully maintain their recovery, piece their lives back together, become contributing members of society, and have a lower chance of relapse.

For all the good that these life-saving medications can do for those suffering from substance use disorder in New Jersey, they’re still not being adequately deployed as effective weapons in the ongoing battle against opioids in this state.

The reason that medication-assisted treatment remains substantially underutilized is clear — the stigma.

Not too long ago, the stigma surrounding addiction hindered lawmakers from taking significant action against the growing substance abuse crisis in New Jersey. Myself and others have fought vehemently to remove that stigma surrounding addiction, and call substance abuse what it is — a disease — and we’ve come a long way. We’ve been incredibly successful in our efforts in shifting public attitude.

As a result of easing this stigma, our lawmakers in New Jersey have embraced the expansion of drug courts, implemented a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, and have made life-saving drugs more readily accessible. Thankfully, more and more New Jersey citizens are embracing the idea that substance abuse is a chronic clinical illness, and are perceiving it as such.

Having appropriately defined the ailment, it’s now time to further expand the use of proper medications. That’s what drugs like Vivitrol and Buprenorphine are — needed medicines in the fight against this disease. It’s thus time we start recognizing them and other addiction treatment medications as the life-preserving antidotes they are.

Robert J. Budsock is president and CEO of Integrity House, a nonprofit substance abuse rehabilitation center with locations in Newark, Secaucus, Toms River, Morris Plains and Jersey City.

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