Is Suboxone Safe to Use Recreationally? (Potential Dangers)

Medically Reviewed

Paracelsus, the pioneering physician and alchemist, is credited with declaring the following, which speaks to the dual nature of medicines: “Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.”

This includes drugs that have a legitimate medical utility like Suboxone, which is employed to treat people with opioid dependency. Still, Suboxone can inflict harm on the body like a poison — and like the highly addictive opioids whose effects it helps to negate. 

Suboxone is especially dangerous when it is abused recreationally. It is not uncommon for this medicine to produce permanent damage and even death. So even recreational use is not safe. The life of 20-year-old Miles Malone is proof.

In 2010, a friend invited Malone to use Suboxone recreationally. He died that same night from buprenorphine poisoning, and the friend who invited him to abuse the drug ended up serving 71 months in prison as a result.

Speaking to The New York Times from a federal prison in upstate New York, that friend admitted underestimating the effect of the opioid treatment medicine.

“I didn’t know you could overdose on Suboxone,” he said, “We were just a bunch of friends getting high and hanging out, doing what 20-year-olds do. Then we went to sleep, and Miles never woke up.”

How Suboxone Works

Suboxone is the brand name for a medication that contains buprenorphine and naloxone. It is used to treat opioid dependence like the long-standing medication known as methadone. What differentiates Suboxone from methadone is that the former can be administered and prescribed at a physician’s office while the latter can only be dispensed at federally sanctioned facilities.

What’s more, Suboxone is seen as a safer alternative to methadone because of its unique formulation. Yes, it contains the opioid medication buprenorphine. Unlike its highly addictive chemical cousins, buprenorphine does not fully attach to receptors in the brain. As a result, it does not produce the euphoric rush associated with other opioids. Yet, the naloxone component is regarded as an opioid antagonist, meaning that it blocks the effects of opioids completely. Thus, when Suboxone is administered to someone with an opioid dependency, they experience reduced cravings, and the withdrawal symptoms are mitigated. 

Suboxone is available as a tablet or film strip to be placed under the tongue or as a film strip inserted between the cheek and gums. In professional treatment settings, Suboxone is also intended to be prescribed along with counseling and behavioral therapy in a practice that is known as medication-assisted treatment (MAT). 

Like methadone, Suboxone is prescribed as a long-term maintenance medication for people with opioid addictions.

The Dangers of Suboxone

There is a perception that Suboxone is safe because it is prescribed and lacks the potency of the opioids it was intended to treat. The reality is that Suboxone is quite dangerous. In 2017, for example, a watchdog group warned that using Suboxone to treat the opioid crisis is like “switching seats on the Titanic.”

In 2019, a federal grand jury indicted a Virginia-based company that sells Suboxone film. The company was indicted for concocting a marketing scheme where it connected opioid-addicted patients to doctors the company knew had prescribed the drug “in a careless and clinically unwarranted manner.”

In the process, the company reaped billions of dollars in profits from Suboxone film prescriptions and allegedly “fooled” health care benefit programs into believing the drug was “safer and less susceptible to diversion and abuse than other similar drugs.”

Further proof that it can be harmful is borne out in the astonishing tenfold increase in emergency room visits for buprenorphine medications like Suboxone, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). What’s more, more than half of the 30,000 hospitalizations in 2010 were for the non-medical use of buprenorphine.

When Suboxone is abused outside of its pharmacological context, it is still capable of producing euphoria and sedation. When a pattern of abuse is established, addiction can bloom, causing dangerous physical and psychological effects, including:

  • Nausea and gastrointestinal issues
  • Muscle pain
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sudden, unpredictable mood swings
  • Frequent headaches
  • Excessive sweating and fevers
  • Slurred speech
  • Memory problems
  • Insomnia

Addiction is marked by compulsive, drug-seeking behaviors around obtaining a drug. When someone develops a Suboxone addiction, they will devote their lives to using the drug, neglecting their familial and professional responsibilities in the process.

Suboxone addiction is epitomized by any of the following behaviors:

  • Having a noticeable decline in work or academic performance
  • Hiding or lying about your Suboxone use
  • Developing an increased tolerance to the effects of Suboxone
  • Being unable to stop using Suboxone after many attempts
  • Being unable to function without using Suboxone
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not using Suboxone
  • Taking the drug in ways that are inconsistent with its purpose
  • Using it more often or in larger amounts than prescribed
  • Becoming socially withdrawn and isolated
  • Missing money or valuables to pay for Suboxone
  • Taking Suboxone without a prescription or medical supervision

The Dangers of Suboxone Overdose

As if those side effects were not enough, Suboxone is also capable of inflicting overdose symptoms. Drugs.com outlines the following conditions as potential symptoms of Suboxone overdose:

  • Difficult or troubled breathing
  • Irregular, fast, slow, or shallow breathing
  • Dizziness, faintness, or lightheadedness when getting up suddenly from a lying or sitting position
  • Pale or blue lips, fingernails, or skin
  • Unusual tiredness or weakness
  • Blurred vision
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Sleepiness
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Having a relaxed and calm feeling

When Suboxone Turns Deadly

Suboxone is capable of causing respiratory depression, where someone can simply stop breathing. When it is taken with medications that depress the central nervous system (CNS) like alcohol, opioids, and benzodiazepines, it can inflict severe respiratory depression and death.

Drinking alcohol with Suboxone can also lead to loss of consciousness and death. 

How Professional Treatment Can Help You

Person, scared, sitting down with their hands on their head

Recreational use of Suboxone can leave you prone to a litany of dangers even though it is used as a treatment medication. Because it is capable of producing harmful effects, professional addiction treatment is vital because it allows for the removal of the drug and the alleviation of withdrawal symptoms safely and comfortably.

The entire process is known as medical detoxification, which is overseen by licensed medical staff.

Once detox is complete, you can enter into residential treatment and/or an outpatient program.

Both treatment courses introduce evidence-based addiction therapies that uncover the psychological underpinnings of your abuse and addiction. The therapies that are often employed in professional treatment include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Motivational interviewing
  • Contingency management
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