Death rates from prescription painkillers taken alone, in a cocktail or with alcohol have been in the new for decades. Stellar names like Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse and a host of other performers, artists, directors and athletes died in the prime of life allegedly due to overdose or drug-related suicide or accidents.
Methadone stands out as the most abused prescription drug. It is prescribed as a painkiller only for 2% of cases yet accounts for 30% of 15,000 painkiller overdose deaths in 2009. Other studies show that 4 out of 10 deaths are due to methadone which becomes even more dangerous in combination with other tranquilizers. Even with billions in dollars allocated for rehabilitation and drug awareness programs, this number is 6 times more than methadone–related deaths in 1999. Overall, rates have risen 4-fold since the last decade.
Given for withdrawal and maintenance, Methadone is still one of the most accepted and widely used prescription drugs for the treatment of opiate addiction. However, national statistics reported by CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) show that methadone is not as safe as presumed: methadone overdose-related deaths closely followed the use of methadone which peaked in 2007, gradually tapering in 2009. This study was conducted across 13 U.S. states by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the Center for Behavioral Services and Quality.
Methadone abuse clearly tops the list for deaths due to single-drug overdose and may be due to the small difference in legally prescribed dose and dangerous levels. Those taking the drug 3 times a day run the risk of drug build-up, developing irregular heartbeat and experiencing breathing difficulties. Its capacity for abuse increases in the light of it being sold as a low-cost generic drug and drug of choice of most insurance companies. Methadone related death rate is twice that of morphine, the second most abused drug followed by Fentanyl, Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, Hydromorphone and Buprenorphine, a drug also used for the treatment of opiate addiction.
Addiction counselors believe that most of the said deaths are not due to the legitimately prescribed drug per se but reflect that of illegal use termed as “diversion”. Diversion means that these prescriptions are illegally sold and used for non-medical reasons. Hence, effects and dosages are not monitored. Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone) and Opana (oxymorphone) are opium-based painkiller drugs that are used in harmful amounts resulting to death.
The dangers of methadone dependency cannot be underestimated. Though related deaths and accidents have leveled off in the last two years due to more judicious prescribing by doctors and more stringent measures by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006, individual states should toughen up drug detection and prescription programs.