Why must doctors complete extra training to prescribe buprenorphine?

I recently completed the buprenorphine waiver training. Buprenorphine, itself a partial opiate, is a medication that can be prescribed to patients who have opiate use disorders (e.g., taking Oxycontins or injecting heroin to get high). A physician must complete an eight-hour training and take an exam to become eligible to prescribe this medication. The physician must then apply for a specific “X license” through the DEA to prescribe it.

In some ways, treatment of substance use disorders is the most evidence-based practice in psychiatry. When talking about opiate use disorders, for example, we can talk about specific mu-opioid receptors and their roles in pain and intoxication. We can discuss how drugs — both illicit and licit — work on these receptors and why certain medications can reduce or eliminate illegal drug use. This logic satisfies the analytical mind.

Since completing this training, I have wondered: Why must one undergo a specific training and obtain a separate DEA license to prescribe buprenorphine?

With my current licenses, I could prescribe all forms of pharmaceutical morphine (e.g., Oxycontin and Dilaudid), which can lead to severe physical and psychological dependence. Which could then result in the intervention of buprenorphine.

As a psychiatrist, I would likely arouse the suspicions of the DEA if I prescribed opiate medications. That’s outside the scope of a psychiatrist’s practice.

However, it is not outside of the scope of a psychiatrist’s practice to prescribe benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium and Xanax), which are Schedule IV drugs (“a low potential for abuse relative to substances in Schedule III”). I can also prescribe Schedule II drugs (“high potential for abuse which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence”), such as Adderall and Ritalin. Physicians are not required to go through any special training or obtain separate licenses to prescribe those medications. Once I got my DEA license, I was free to prescribe these without anyone looking at me askance.

And, get this: Buprenorphine is a Schedule III drug!

The training offered the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 as one reason behind the training requirement: This law suggests physicians can prescribe opiates as part of “normal” treatment, but not for treatment for addiction. Addiction was not considered a disease in 1914. Thus, if addiction is not a disease, no intervention is indicated.

That explanation, however, doesn’t make sense. There is growing consensus that substance use disorders are diseases. Nothing, other than my good judgment, prevents me from cranking out prescriptions for stimulants and benzodiazepines. Use of either medication can lead to addiction. What makes opiates so special?

The consequences of the buprenorphine training are not slight: The eight-hour training alone likely deters some physicians from pursuing it. The extra licensure is also an obstacle, as well as the consequences of using the license: No one wants regular, but unannounced, DEA audits (which, just to be clear, doesn’t happen with when one prescribes benzodiazepines or stimulants). No one is eager to maintain the documentation that is required when one prescribes buprenorphine.

It just makes me wonder what the actual story is.

Maria Yang is a psychiatrist who blogs at her self-titled site, Maria Yang, MD.

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