- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2004

BALTIMORE (AP) — Methadone-overdose deaths have shot up dramatically in Maryland over the past six years, the state medical examiner’s office said.

Methadone is used to alleviate heroin addiction and as a powerful painkiller.

In Maryland, 29 persons have died from methadone intoxication through November, according to figures from the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. That’s compared with three deaths in 1998.

While the deaths represent 4 percent of the 662 deaths caused by illegal and abused prescription drugs during the period, officials said they are concerned by the emerging trend.

“We’re paying attention to it,” said Peter Luongo, director of the state’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration.

Clinics that distribute methadone to drug addicts have been a source of dispute, often igniting fierce opposition from communities. But health care officials say they doubt such clinics are the source of the abused methadone.

The distribution of methadone is subject to tight controls at the 45 drug-treatment clinics in Maryland, said Mr. Luongo and other state and local officials.

“We have had no diversion from any methadone clinics that would cause us to have any concerns that drug treatment is a source” of these deaths, Mr. Luongo said.

Health officials and researchers concede that more research must be been done to determine whether those who died in Maryland were enrolled in addiction-treatment programs, used methadone legitimately for pain treatment or illicitly obtained and abused the drug.

In addition to Maryland, Virginia, Maine, North Carolina and Florida also have dealt with rising cases of methadone-related overdose deaths.

The trend is part of a nationwide increase in the abuse of powerful painkillers over the past decade, statistics show.

From 1994 to 2001, the number of emergency-department visits involving abuse of narcotic painkillers more than doubled, from nearly 42,000 to more than 90,000, according to the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network, which monitors emerging drug threats.

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