Methadone and Its Unintended Consequences in Society: A Historical Perspective

January 14, 2007 by  
Filed under ADDICTION

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By William L. Smith Ph. D.

It has been more than forty two years since Dr. Marie Nyswander and Vincent P. Dole, a husband and wife team, announced a scientific breakthrough which was considered, at that time, the most advanced step in the American Medical community. This advanced discovery was a synthetic drug that would enhance medical supervision of drug addicts and their heroin addiction. Dole and Nyswander indicated that the use of methadone by heroin addicts appeared to alleviate their hunger for heroin, thus reducing the necessity for crime against property; and the need for addicted individuals to enlist new converts to the drug culture. “Methadonia,” a documentary by filmmaker, Michel Negroponte, recently aired on HBO created a renewed interest in the synthetic opiate methadone. During the 1960’s methadone was used primarily to block the euphoric effect of heroin addiction and to alleviate the symptoms of withdrawl from heroin. Mr. Negroponte’s film focused mainly on recovering addicts at the New York Center for Addition Treatment Services, which is located on Broadway at Houston Street.

The 90 minutes film followed the addicts through their murky world of addiction while respecting their efforts to stay clean. The film also shows how methadone can lead to an addiction worse than heroin or other addictive drugs. The documentary highlighted a trend in which methadone users often develop secondary additions to prescription drugs. These prescription drugs, combined with methadone, produce a euphoric rush and, too often, an addiction that is more life-threatening than caused by heroin addiction. Before proceeding further, my readers should understand what methadone is. Methadone is a synthetic chemical discovered by Germany during World War II, when their supply of pain killing opiates were in short supply. Today, in some instances, it continues to be used as a pain-killer. Methadone is addictive as is all other opiates such as heroin, demerol, morphine, barbituates, and alcohol. Therefore, abuse or over-use of these drugs will result in two major consequences; (1) systemic bodily tolerance, and (2) specific physical withdrawal symptoms that occur with discontinued use.

Since the discovery of methadone, the treatment of drug addiction in the United States has reached the level of mega business. It is now an intrinsical part of the Nation’s economy, and becoming more entrenched each day. In the process, the intimate doctor/patient relationship originally sought in the methadone clinic been overturned. In its place is the current interest in Medicaide reimbursement; client’s return visits, and policing clients for strict adherence to drug abstinence.

Unintended, Unforeseen Consequences in Society It would appear that the chemists, who discovered methadone, and those who introduced methadone to the United States in 1947, intended its use to ease the pain and suffering that was the by-product of war and injury. Dole and Nyswander intended goal was to used methadone to stem the tide of heroin addiction and its social ills in the United States. However, they could not foresee methadone someday being partly responsible for society’s further deterioration, socially, economically, and, politically. This social phenomenon of unintended results of human action in society is described by sociologist, Max Weber, Robert Merton, and Robert Nisbet. The American sociologist Robert Merton refers to this concept as manifest and latent functions. The former are the desired and intended function of social processes, and the latter the unintended undesireable processes. Robert Nisbet, was most direct in explaining this theme:

In the popular view…we have a tendency to think of social problems as the consequence solely of evil or undesireable elements. For centuries a large part of Western ethics has been based upon the view that only good can come from good; only evil from evil. If there is crime, it is because of evil persons, evil groups, evil values. Yet…much of what is associated with our social problems is closely related to things we deem good. (J.M. Martin and J.P. Fitzpatrick, Delinquent Behaviors, Random House, New York, 1964, pg 5).

In a further search of the litersture, I found that sociologists Peter L. Berger, Emile Durkheim, Robert Merton, and Max Weber all discuss this sociological dysfunction. To improve our understanding of the drug problem, we should view it from the sociologist’s platform. In other words, we must be knowledgeable of how the problem is sustained through social and political interaction. For example, Peter Berger informs us that a sociological problem is quite different from a social problem. Social problem is the official interpretation and explanation when something in society does not work the way it should. The sociological problem, on the other hand, is understanding the social interaction. Therefore, it is not important why something goes wrong, according to the authorities, but how the system works as a unit; and by what means it is held together.

To echo Berger once again, he further points out that, the fundamental sociological problem is not crime but the law, not divorce but marriage, not racial discrimination but racial stratification, not revolution but goverment. If we accept Berger’s concept then the foundamental sociological problem in this instance is not addiction but methadone.

In light of this theory we may conclude that the drug problem in the United States is a sociological problem and not a social problem as it is commonly defined by authorities. It appear the problem is born out of the unenforceable laws and ineffective political bureaucracies, and not the inherent qualities of individuals. Naturally certain personality types such as the passive-dependent are disproportionately associated with addiction. These personality types and their association with drug use are often explained by the socio-psychological process leading to addiction.

Historically, this society has been inundated with bureaucratic decisions to institute criminal law to regulate private morality.

In 1914 the Harrison Act, was passed to control all opiates. This legislation defined all addicts as criminals and many doctors prescribing opiates as law violators. The limited effectiveness of the law is often seen as the first step in the institutionalization of drug use as a socially created evil. Later, the Marijuana Tax Act and other punitive regulations compounded this effect. These ineffective and inappropriate legislations represent an attempt by moral entrepreneurs to control social morality.

Sociologists has concluded that the social cost of seeking criminal law solution to control social morality greatly outweighs any social benefits that might result. If we examine the situation very carefully, we will discover that the same kind of bureaucratic decision making philosophy is at work in an effort to resolve the drug problem. The difference this time is that the approach is not law but chemical; as witnessed by the widespread proliferation of methadone maintence clinics across the Nation.

Update: Dr. Vincent P. Dole, Methadone Researcher, Is Dead at 93, New York August 3, 2006.


Berger, Peter L., Invitation to Sociology. New York, Doubleday Company, 1963.

Weber, Max., The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York, Charles Scribner’s & Sons, 1968.

Dr. Smith is a Psychologist and personal consultant with over three decades of working with individuals and groups, specializing in all personal issues related to quality of life concerns. I have had broad successes working with individuals who had experienced Incest, and other Sexual Trauma, Adult Children of Alcoholics. These experiences often manifest themselves symptomatically as depression, anxiety, stress, eating disorders, cigarette and related addictions, but more commonly relationships are problematic on all levels. For additional information contact Dr. Smith at:

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