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Researchers Find A Way To Help People With Meth Addiction Avoid Relapse


Meth addiction has come roaring back, and during the pandemic, it has grown even worse. Deaths from meth overdoses surged by roughly a third last year, but there is some good news. For the first time, researchers say they have found a medical treatment that helps some people trying to recover from meth addiction. The study was published today in the New England Journal of Medicine. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Jessica Martinez (ph) started using meth when she earned money as a sex worker, paying her way through college. Her life quickly unraveled.

JESSICA MARTINEZ: Oh, I was shooting up every day, sometimes two to three times a day.

MANN: Meth is incredibly toxic and incredibly addictive. Martinez, who works now helping others with meth addiction, says when she started her recovery two years ago, it was brutally hard, in part because there was no medical treatments to help with cravings and withdrawal.

MARTINEZ: For heroin users, there's methadone. There's Suboxone. I just wonder why we haven't researched this drug yet.

MANN: But research has been happening at clinics around the country. Doctors working with the National Institute of Drug Abuse found a combination of two drugs - Naltrexone and bupropion - helped many of their patients avoid relapse.

NORA VOLKOW: This is progress, and it's quite significant.

MANN: Dr. Nora Volkow is the institute's director. She says the clinical trial found roughly 1 in 9 patients who used these two drugs in combination saw significant improvement. That may not sound like a home run, but she says for medications treating mental health or addiction, that's a strong result. Volkow says it appears the drugs work together to ease depression and cravings.

VOLKOW: And if we start to help them that way, this in turn will lead them to achieve recovery.

MANN: Again, many patients weren't helped by this treatment. But because these two drugs are widely available for treating other medical conditions, Volkow expects doctors to begin trying the method even before it wins approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

VOLKOW: Right now, I mean, the moment that the paper is published, doctors are going to be reading about it and may prescribe the medications off-label to their patients.

MANN: Dr. Lara Ray is a psychologist researching medical treatments for meth addiction at UCLA. She says today's study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, changes the landscape of meth treatment.

LARA RAY: So far, we have come up empty. So I believe that this finding, this clinical trial really is a breakthrough in many ways because there have been many, many failed trials.

MANN: This new treatment arrives at a moment when meth overdoses are killing four times more Americans every year compared with a decade ago. Matthew Donahue with the Drug Enforcement Administration says the trend is fueled by a pipeline of cheap meth smuggled from Mexico.

MATTHEW DONAHUE: It's almost like methamphetamine's falling from the sky right now with the amount that's coming through the borders, through boats, on planes.

MANN: Donahue says meth is everywhere from the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest. He thinks the lack of medical therapies has complicated efforts to curb demand. There's one more reason new treatment approaches to help people quit meth are desperately needed. More meth is being laced with another deadly drug, the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Last year in the U.S., meth and fentanyl together pushed overdose deaths to roughly 82,000, a grim new record. Brian Mann, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.