Fine Gael's Dr Bill Tormey

A HIGH-profile politician and doctor is backing a controversial drug treatment which replaces methadone with injectable heroin for chronic addicts.

Fine Gael's Dr Bill Tormey (right), who became a controversial figure in 2006 after disputing the state pathologist's findings in the death of Brian Murphy at Club Anabel in Dublin, says it is time Ireland reconsidered how to treat heroin addicts.

Highlighting a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, Tormey said the use of heroin instead of methadone is effective in keeping relapsing addicts in treatment and reducing associated crime.

"For years I have been advocating decriminalisation of the personal use of recreational drugs on the grounds of adult autonomy and harm reduction," he told the Sunday Tribune. "The business of a doctor is not to go along with the political consensus. It is to go along with what is objectively correct."

Fine Gael TD Catherine Byrne, who is drawing up a drugs policy document for the party, said she would be willing to read the report and discuss it with Tormey.

Ireland's adoption of oral methadone treatment for heroin addicts has long been a cause of heated debate.

The article, 'Diacetylmorphine versus Methadone for the Treatment of Opioid Addiction', points to a success rate in treating relapsing addicts with heroin as opposed to methadone. A total of 226 relapsing addicts, who had been previously treated with methadone, were split into two groups. Of these, 111 were given methadone and 115 diacetylmorphine, the active ingredient of heroin.

At the end of 12 months, the study found that nearly 88% of those receiving heroin were retained in the drug treatment programme compared to just 54% in the methadone group.

It also found that the reduction in rates of illicit drug use or other illegal activity was 67% among heroin recipients compared to nearly 48% on methadone. The study concluded that "injectable [heroin] was more effective than oral methadone".

Its authors noted that 15% to 25% of the most adversely affected people do not have a good response to methadone.

"Such persons are either not retained in methadone maintenance treatment for very long or continue to use illicit opiates while in treatment."

In Dublin, there have long been concerns about the behaviour of addicts around the city's methadone maintenance clinics, where heroin dealing is rampant.

"]Methadone programmes] ignore about 20% or 30% of the methadone users whose behaviour is chaotic and which is improved by the use of injectable heroin," Tormey said. "I don't think the methadone programme is inadequate, I think it is flawed and needs to be improved."