Monday, May 10, 2004

Officer: Methadone most abused

The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE - An eastern Kentucky drug investigator says methadone is replacing OxyContin as the region's most abused prescription drug.

Since January 2003, a total of 345 Kentuckians have died from overdoses related to the synthetic narcotic, according to a survey by the Courier-Journal.

Methadone, invented in Germany during World War II as a substitute for morphine and used now as a painkiller and to treat heroin addiction, has found new popularity because of tighter controls on OxyContin, authorities said.

"Most of your big pain treatment centers and doctors quit prescribing as much OxyContin and started prescribing methadone," said Dan Smoot, a former state police detective who is head of law enforcement for the federally funded anti-drug task force in Hazard.

Among eastern Kentucky counties, Breathitt has been the hardest hit. Since January 2003, 40 people have died from a combination of methadone and either alcohol, another painkiller or a tranquilizer, according to Bobby Thorpe, the county coroner.

In Jefferson County, 34 people have died from methadone-related overdoses in the past 16 months, by far the most of any drug, Chief Deputy Coroner Mark Handy said.

On average, Kentucky has about 400 overdose deaths annually from all drugs, said state medical examiner Tracy Corey.

The Courier-Journal contacted coroners or deputy coroners in all 120 counties. As of Friday, 80 from all parts of the state had responded, reporting the 345 methadone-related deaths since January 2003. Those counties represent about 75 percent of Kentucky's population.

Asked about the results of the survey, Lt. Gov. Steve Pence said, "It disturbs me." He also serves as secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.

Authorities seized more methadone than any other drug during a series of investigations earlier this year that led to warrants for the arrest of more than 200 street-level drug traffickers in the region, Smoot said.

Abusers often crush and snort methadone with other drugs, or dissolve them in liquid and inject them. The combination can produce a lethal high by leading to respiratory failure or a heart attack, coroners said.

Prescriptions up

In 2001, Kentucky physicians wrote more than 150,000 prescriptions for OxyContin, but that dropped to 130,000 in 2003, according to the Cabinet for Health Services.

Meanwhile, the number of methadone prescriptions increased by about 340,000, to nearly 2.7 million, during that time.

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