Methadone, a potent opiate once used almost exclusively to treat heroin addicts, is increasingly being prescribed by doctors as a pain medication and abused by drug users searching for a cheap, easy way to get high, physicians and federal drug officials tell the Los Angeles Times. The drug, which comes in pill or liquid form, recently has come under scrutiny in the death of Anna Nicole Smith. A doctor prescribed methadone to Smith for pain treatment before she was found dead Feb. 8. Earlier, Smith’s 20-year-old son died after taking a lethal mixture of methadone and two antidepressants, Zoloft and Lexapro.
Well before these deaths, drug counselors and clinicians were concerned about increased abuse of the drug on the streets, in group homes, and even in middle schools. It is an ironic turn in the history of methadone, which for years has been used to treat heroin addiction. In recent years, methadone has proved lethal to a growing number of patients or addicts who use it in conjunction with prescription drugs including Valium, Xanax or, in the case of addicts, illegal narcotics such as cocaine. Sometimes users swallow methadone before or after they “puff,” slowly inhaling the chemicals from an aerosol can. “Every year, we see hundreds of these deaths, and the numbers continue to increase,” said Bruce Goldberger, director of toxicology at the University of Florida. “It is absolutely the fastest-growing drug problem.”