Methadone-Linked Deaths Shoot Up

Deaths from methadone, a drug used in the treatment of heroin addiction, have risen at an alarming rate in recent years, according to a Justice Department assessment.

As part of treatment, methadone has been used successfully since the 1950s. While it is safe to use when closely monitored under a physician's care, methadone can be deadly when abused by addicts who often take the drug with other drugs and alcohol.

The assessment from the National Drug Intelligence Center found that methadone poisoning increased 390 percent from 1999 to 2004. This accounted for a jump from 786 deaths in 1999 to 3,849 deaths in 2004.

According to the report, "Selected state health department data indicate methadone poisoning deaths increased through 2006."

During the 1999 to 2004 time period, cocaine-related deaths also increased 43 percent, from 3,822 to 5,461.

Theft and division of the drug in recent years have increased, with the report finding that 18,547 doses were stolen in 2004. The number of stolen doses dramatically increased to 67,867 in 2006.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, in 2001 the number of medical practitioners who could distribute methadone was only 6,260, increasing more than 700 percent to 51,046 medical practitioners able to prescribe the drug.

The report noted that the increase in abuse of the pain reliever OxyContin has led to more doctors prescribing methadone. "Many practitioners began to dispense methadone as a pain reliever, following the negative publicity surrounding OxyContin's high potential for addiction and abuse," it said.

The FDA issued a public health advisory about methadone in November 2006, which noted that part of the problem of methadone overdoses occurred because the drug remains in the body for anywhere from eight to 59 hours.

The advisory stated, "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 it is taken with certain other medications or supplements."