Smuggling Suboxone: Why inmates are desperate to get the drug

Published: Aug. 28, 2014 at 9:04 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 1, 2014 at 9:05 PM EDT
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Suboxone dissolvable films are the preferred fix for anyone who can't get their hands on heroin.
Suboxone dissolvable films are the preferred fix for anyone who can't get their hands on heroin.

BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WECT) - The Brunswick County Detention Center is cracking down on a prescription drug being smuggled inside. Postage will be removed from all mail delivered to inmates at the facility in an effort to cut down on the problem.

Recently, several female inmates were re-arrested and charged after being caught smuggling Suboxone films with help from an outside accomplice.

Jail officials knew the inmates were getting some kind of contraband in, but where it was coming from required a closer look at the mail.

Once they discovered the small dissolvable strips hidden behind postage stamps, a deeper investigation began and the drug started showing up in all sorts of creative places.

"They are not going to get by with it," warned Captain Kim Layne, Assistant Administrator at the Brunswick County Detention Center. "We're not going to let them get by with it"

Inside the jail, Suboxone dissolvable films are the preferred fix for anyone who can't get their hands on heroin.

Considering heroin requires syringes, papers and other accessories to administer, the stakes are higher for smugglers. Suboxone, on the other hand, is about the same size as a dissolvable breath strip and can deliver just enough relief for addicts.

According to Reckitt Benckiser, the manufacturer of Suboxone films, the prescription drug is intended to be a discreet and effective treatment for opioid dependence.

A combination of the drugs buprenorphine and naloxone, Suboxone helps reduce the physical symptoms of withdrawal from opioids (heroin being one). The film is a small, orange rectangle that's placed in the mouth and absorbed into the bloodstream.

It's discreet size allows users to stay on track with treatment without disrupting daily life, but has had the unintended side effect of making smuggling easy for active addicts. At the jail, inmates use it to endure the time spent away from their opioid of choice.

Narcotics officers showed WECT a range of hideouts that only a trained eye would detect. One smuggler stacked the strips, slit a space between the pieces of glued paper on a box of cards and tucked the Suboxone films neatly inside.

Other inmates had the films delivered behind postage and inside books.

Criminals staying for just weekend sentences have separated the hem of their clothing and sewn the Suboxone into it.

And, when all else fails, a few opt for using their own bodies to hide the drug inside of.

Now, the postage is off the mail, every page on every book is flipped through, and all decks of cards are unwrapped and checked.

Lt. Stephen Lanier of the Brunswick County Sheriff Drug Enforcement Unit has seen it all – and nothing surprises him.

"We have policies and procedures on how to deal with that as well," Lanier bluntly stated.

Those procedures include making both male and female inmates squat down and force a cough. The contraction of their abdominal muscles will typically force out any contraband hidden inside them.

Suboxone users do not take the drug to get high. In fact, the drug is designed not to do so.

Suboxone is a type of 'medication-assisted' treatment for opioid dependence. Most people are unable to quit opioids "cold turkey" and that's where drugs like Suboxone come into play.

Suboxone was FDA approved in 2002 and both eases the symptoms of withdrawal and cravings for at least 24 hours.

Suboxone does not impart a feeling of euphoria but can help inmates who are using avoid going into withdrawal.

"It keeps them where they can function normally," said Lanier. "They don't want to hurt. They don't want to be dry-heaving in the toilet all day long. They want to be normal."

The drug also has a 'ceiling effect,' meaning taking more than prescribed does not result in the patient getting high, unlike methadone.

Suboxone is prescribed by a specially trained doctor. A simple search on the manufacturer's web site allows patients to find the nearest doctor of facility for treatment.

Officials at Brunswick County's jail say the more they crack down on heroin, the more Suboxone they see in the jail - the natural consequence of having more addicts behind bars.

Pamela Morrison, the Program Director at Coastal Horizons Center isn't surprised that inmates are smuggling Suboxone given the degree that heroin and other opioids have infiltrated the community.

"It's often unseen by the general population but there is a huge heroin problem in our community," said Morrison.

Morrison says heroin and other opioids offer a high that's hard to come down from. For active users, any length of jail time means inevitable physical pain for days.

"Like a terrible, horrible, flu," said Morrison. "Body aches, sweating, hot and cold sweats, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea...significant and extremely, extremely painful."

But while Suboxone was intended to help people hooked on opioids not use illicit drugs, prescriptions written without close monitoring or follow-up can allow for a flow of the drug into the community.

On the manufacturer's website, it specifically states: "SUBOXONE Film should be part of a complete treatment plan to include counseling and behavioral therapy."

Coastal Horizons Center in Wilmington offers both a prescription-based Suboxone and now, daily one-time dispensing of Suboxone. The shift is intended to thwart misuse.

At their facility, mandatory counseling is a non-negotiable criterion.

"It's an ever evolving thing," said Lanier. "Every time they change, we change to follow them. Then they change to follow something else."

Several inmates smuggling Suboxone inside Brunswick County's jail now have additional charges and additional time to get through withdrawal.

The jail's policy is not to administer Suboxone even if it is prescribed by a doctor.

For every detective and official charged with keeping an eye on every prisoner and every package delivered to them, a warning offered.

"We intend to send the message that we're not going to tolerate this," said Layne. "If we have to strip search everybody every single day, if we have to do cell searches every single day, whatever it takes is what we are going to do to make sure that doesn't happen anymore."

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