Methadone: A frequent, and lethal, danger
October 23, 2006
Once solely used as treatment for heroin addicts, methadone is being prescribed as medication for those with chronic pain. The wider use of the drug is causing an increased occurrence of deaths via overdose, officials said.
Washoe County Coroner Vernon McCarty said his office comes into weekly contact with people who overdose on methadone. The office covers 14 of Nevada’s 17 counties, including Douglas, and four northeastern counties in California.
“It is now used as a very potent pain reliever and consequently its use is widespread,” he said.
People who take methadone along with other medication affecting the central nervous system are at more risk of overdosing than others, officials said.
McCarty said his office does not keep statistics of methadone overdoses.
Dr. William Anderson, chief toxicologist for the forensic science division of Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, advised people who are switching to prescription methadone medication to use caution.
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Anderson said the body can be overwhelmed from methadone if consumption of the drug is not initially taken in small doses.
“They often take so much too soon,” he said.
“That’ll get you in trouble,” he added. “We have people who die at concentrates (that) later on they could survive if they just built up slowly.”
Methadone overdoses depress the central nervous system, making the person appear sleepy, as if passing out from too much alcohol, Anderson said. After awhile, the lungs stop breathing.
Snoring and gargling sounds in the throat are common, Anderson said.
Besides death, other effects of methadone are a weak pulse, low blood pressure, drowsiness, disorientation and coma, according to Douglas County sheriff’s Sgt. Tom Mezzetta.
In August 2000, a National Institute on Drug Abuse reported progress in methadone treatment as calls to increase the daily dosage of methadone were made to effectively fight heroin addictions.
Two years later a news report from Florida University cited researchers cautioning the use of methadone to combat oxycodone abuse.
“In Florida, we had a 71 percent increase in methadone-related deaths from 2000 to 2001 – now methadone is associated with more deaths than heroin,” Bruce Goldberger, a University of Florida professor and forensic toxicologist, said at the time.
In February 2003, the New York Times published a lengthy piece on methadone being abused as a recreational drug, often with deadly results.
Anderson said the abuse has grown into a “nationwide trend” insofar as every conference he attends the drug is “talked about over and over again.”
There is no particular population subgroup that tends to overdose more than others, Anderson said.
“It can be almost everybody,” he said. “There are plenty of adults. This is just not a young-person problem.
“It’s a dangerous drug.”