Objective: To assess the feasibility of offering the choice of prescribing injectable heroin (diamorphine) or injectable methadone to opiate-dependent injecting drug users and to assess whether there are health and social gains associated with prescribing injectable opiates.
Design: A protocol-driven prospective observational study. Type of injectable opiate received was based on self-selection.
Setting: A large west London drug clinic.
Patients: Fifty-eight patients admitted to the clinic between 1 June 1995 and 31 December 1996, who were long term opiate-dependent injecting drug users, who had previously tried and failed oral methadone and who were apparently unable or unwilling to give up injecting.
Main outcome measures: Retention in treatment, illicit drug use, HIV risk behaviour, criminal activity, social functioning, health and psychological status as measured by self-report, urinalysis and doctor's ratings.
Results: Thirty-seven patients (64%) chose heroin and 21 (36%) chose injectable methadone. Fifty (86%) were retained in treatment after three months, 40 (69%) after six months and 33 (57%) after 12 months. Among those in treatment at three months, there were significant reductions in illicit drug use, illicit drug-injecting risk behaviour, and criminal activity, and significant improvements in social functioning, health status and psychological adjustment. Generally, these gains were sustained between three, six and 12 months. Doctors' ratings of health and urinalysis results further supported these findings.
Conclusions: Injectable heroin is not always the drug of choice. This intervention retained most patients in treatment with substantial benefits to both patients and the community. Prescribing injectable opiates to long term injecting drug users is a feasible treatment option.