Meet the "Robin Hood" of Suboxone

By Jennifer Matesa 07/27/12

Albuquerque's "Mystery Man" hawks the detox drug Suboxone to addicts at a price they can afford. But is he right?

Is this "Robin Hood" helping, or enabling?
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New Mexico is the state with the highest fatal drug overdose rate in the country, at 27 deaths per 100,000 population. If you live there, and you’re addicted to painkillers or heroin and want to get clean, you might have heard of "Mystery Man"—an Albuquerque guy who raises money selling guns and crack to buy out patients’ legitimate prescriptions for Suboxone. He then turns around and sells the pills on the street for five bucks a pop to addicts who either can’t get in with Suboxone doctors or are looking to tide themselves over until their next full agonist fix. An addiction-treatment Robin Hood? He thinks so. “People don’t overdose no more,” he says. “They’re just mellow. If you take it, you won’t be stealing, you won’t be robbing, and you won’t be prostituting.” But there are those who disagree. “Mystery Man [is] not a doctor,” says special agent Keith Brown, who’s in charge of the DEA’s New Mexico force. “He doesn’t know anything about how the medicine should be used, the dosing of it, any side effects. I think it’s dangerous for all involved.”

Charles O'Keeffe, the former president and CEO of Reckitt Benckiser—the corporation that developed Suboxone in partnership with the federal government—told NPR “there’s not much money to be made” treating addiction with pharmaceuticals. But Reckitt’s pharma earnings shot up more than sixfold between 2004 and 2009—largely due to Suboxone sales. “Buprenorphine is now the 41st most prescribed drug in the US. Five years ago, it was 196th. It’s a money machine,” Dr. Steven Scanlan, medical director of Palm Beach Outpatient Detox, which has a specialty in detoxing addicts from opioids, tells The Fix. Suboxone (also known as buprenorphine, or “bupe”) is becoming known as “prison heroin,” and the University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research published a warning this spring predicting a wave of Suboxone misuse. 

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Jennifer Matesa is a Voice Award Fellow at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is the author of the blog Guinevere Gets Sober. She is the author of several books, including the non-fiction, The Recovering Body, about physical and spiritual fitness for living clean and sober. You can find Jennifer on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.