TODAY, February 12, 2007
Methadone, a painkiller that has been used to treat
heroin addicts for decades, has emerged as an
increasingly popular and deadly street drug, joining
narcotics such as Vicodin and OxyContin as frequently
abused prescription drugs.
overdoses of methadone rose at a higher rate than those
involving any other narcotic from 1999 through 2004,
according to a recent study by the National Center for
Health Statistics (NCHS). The number of deaths from
methadone in 2004 (3,849) represented a 390% rise from
1999, the study said.
ON THE STREET:
Painkiller becomes more available
Methadone was cited in nearly 13%
of all the overdose deaths reported in the USA in 2004,
up from about 4% five years earlier. Among drugs cited
in fatal overdoses, only cocaine kills more people than
The NCHS study — and reports from
coroners nationwide that the trend is continuing —
indicate that doctors' increasing tendency to prescribe
methadone as a cheap alternative to addictive pain
relievers such as OxyContin has made it easier for
addicts to get methadone, the Drug Enforcement
Administration's Denise Curry says.
"It's out there, it's available,
and it can be dangerous," Curry says. Pharmacies report
that methadone is among the most popular drugs stolen,
along with Vicodin and OxyContin, she says.
At about $20 a pill on the black
market and pennies a dose when prescribed, methadone is
considerably cheaper than such opiates.
Methadone has long been viewed as
a relatively safe and effective narcotic, in part
because its effects are gradual and it can ease
withdrawal symptoms for recovering heroin addicts.
However, it also is addictive,
and drug addicts account for most methadone-related
deaths, says Nicholas Reuter, a senior public health
analyst at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Reuter says the problem is
complicated by doctors who prescribe methadone
incorrectly and patients who do not follow directions in
taking it. On Nov. 26, the Food and Drug Administration
warned doctors that "prescribing methadone is complex"
because it eases pain up to six hours but can stay in
the body 59 hours. Patients may want more before the
dose wears off, the FDA warned.
"Methadone may build up in the
body to a toxic level if it is taken too often, if the
amount taken is too high, or if it is taken with certain
other medications," the FDA said.
Authorities nationwide cite
rising methadone fatalities:
• Fatal drug overdoses in New
Hampshire rose from 39 in 1995 to 105 in 2003, and chief
state medical examiner Thomas Andrew determined that
methadone was the key. In 2005, Andrew says, at least 52
of the 153 people who died from overdoses in the state
had taken methadone. He suspects the trend continued in
• Florida has had a "steady
increase" in methadone deaths since 2001, says Jennifer
Cook Pritt of the Department of Law Enforcement.
• In West Virginia, where fatal
methadone overdoses rose from 40 in 2001 to 116 in 2005,
state legislators are holding hearings on a plan to
limit the medical professionals who could prescribe the
drug, says Del. Don Perdue, a Democrat who leads the
health committee in the House of Delegates.