The doctor famously commissioned an unused ferry boat to serve as a temporary methadone clinic when a private clinic shut down in 1972.
The “methadone pope” passed away this month, sparking a conversation about his groundbreaking contributions to the worlds of harm reduction and medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for substance use disorder.
Dr. Robert Newman spent his career advocating for methadone access and defending patients’ rights.
As a young public health doctor in New York City, Newman was instrumental in expanding the city’s methadone program. In its first year, it served 20,000 people.
“He was on the front lines of advocating for methadone, when no one else was talking about it, when it was taboo and unwelcome,” said Kasia Malinowska, of the Open Society Foundations. “He thought that methadone was an effective, easy, cheap public health intervention; that it’s insane to deny it to people who are so deeply in need.”
Newman believed in methadone’s ability to help people trying to quit heroin live normal lives. He further defended patients who did not wish to taper off the medication.
“There’s no moral judgment as to how much penicillin one uses to treat gonorrhea, and there shouldn’t be any moral judgment as to how much methadone a patient is receiving if the result is satisfactory,” he said in 2011, according to the Huffington Post.
The doctor famously commissioned an unused ferry boat to serve as a temporary methadone clinic when a private clinic shut down in 1972; and Newman would transport methadone from the makeshift clinic using his son’s stroller.
Newman defended NYC’s methadone program when Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried shutting it down in 1998. The mayor believed that methadone maintenance was just substituting one substance use disorder for another.
Newman also defended patients’ right to privacy when the government ordered that he relinquish patients’ methadone records to law enforcement—and won.
“Not only was he passionate about this, but he was courageous. He was totally willing and prepared to go to jail,” said his nephew Tony Newman, director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance.
The doctor’s advocacy did not end with methadone. As president of Beth Israel Medical Center, Newman advocated needle exchanges for drug users “long before the AIDS outbreak generated broader support for such controversial programs,” the New York Times reported.
Under his leadership, the hospital became the world’s largest provider of methadone, serving about 8,000 patients by 2001, according to the Times.