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Nine deaths linked to methadone

| September 8, 2004 12:00 AM

By Brent Shrum, Western News Reporter

Investigating the overdose death of a 16-year-old Eureka girl in late 2002, Detective Jim Sweet was taken aback when he learned that the drug that killed her was methadone.

A synthetic narcotic discovered by German scientists during World War II, methadone is best-known for its use in urban clinics for the treatment of heroin addiction starting in the 1950s.

³To me it was a shocking thing because it showed up unexpectedly,² Sweet said. ³I thought methadone was a thing of the past.²

What Sweet didn¹t know then was that the Eureka girl, who took an accidental overdose after being given some pills a schoolmate had found among his mother¹s prescriptions, would be followed by eight more methadone deaths in Lincoln County in less than two years.

According to county coroner Steve Schnackenberg, three people overdosed on the drug in 2003 and five so far in 2004. Most of those people had their own prescription, Schnackenberg said, although Sweet added that some people are selling or giving away their prescriptions.

The use of methadone as a prescription painkiller has been on the rise in recent years, and so have methadone overdose deaths. Ninety percent of methadone overdoses occur within 10 days of the first prescription, Schnackenberg said.

³It does not take a lot to kill yourself on methadone,² he said.

Libby pharmacist Frank Fahland said he has seen an increase in the number of methadone prescriptions locally over the past three years, with simple economics playing a large part. Compared to OxyContin, which is popular both with physicians prescribing it legitimately and drug abusers looking for a high similar to heroin, methadone is cheap.

³OxyContin is tremendously expensive,² Fahland said.

A typical 30-day prescription of OxyContin, which consists of 60 40-milligram pills to be taken twice a day, costs in the neighborhood of $310 to $375. An equivalent prescription of 120 10-milligram methadone pills, which are taken four times a day, costs about $35.

What makes methadone valuable as a painkiller and as treatment for addiction to heroin or other opiates is the same thing that makes it so dangerous when abused. Unlike other drugs prescribed for pain relief and abused for the high they can provide, methadone remains active in the body long after the obvious effects have worn off, Fahland said. While the initial high is short-lived, the drug is in the system for 36 to 48 hours, he said.

That aspect of methadone makes it an effective long-lasting pain reliever as well as a way for addicts to wean themselves off heroin and avoid physical withdrawal symptoms. It¹s also a reason the drug is sometimes prescribed for patients who need a painkiller but have a history of addiction.

Methadone is a poor — and deadly — choice of drug for someone looking to get high, Fahland said.

³In order to stay high on methadone, you¹ve got to take it more often,² he said.

In doing so, an inexperienced user can inadvertently accumulate a toxic dose of the drug.

³Just because the high from the methadone¹s gone doesn¹t mean the methadone¹s gone,² Fahland said. ³Methadone¹s a dangerous drug to get high on.²