- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

ROANOKE (AP) — Western Virginia had 85 deaths from methadone overdoses last year — a per-capita rate at least twice that of New York City, according to state crime lab figures.

Deaths from the prescription drug, developed during World War II as an alternative to morphine, increased by 600 percent in the region in the past five years.

Fatal overdoses from other prescription drugs also have risen sharply, said Dr. William Massello of the state Medical Examiner’s Office for Western Virginia.

Last year, there were 213 drug deaths in the western half of the state.

“That’s 3 times what we used to have just eight years ago,” Dr. Massello said.

Fatal overdoses were up last year in four categories of opium-based prescription drugs. In addition to the methadone deaths, 47 involved hydrocodone, 44 ocycodone and 21 fentanyl.

Of all the drugs abused in the Roanoke Valley, methadone is perhaps the most controversial.

A proposed methadone clinic in northwest Roanoke is widely opposed by residents who fear it will bring crime to their neighborhoods. A similar proposal in southwest Roanoke County was withdrawn in the face of strong community resistance.

Opponents worry that methadone will be sold on the street.

However, police and medical examiners say virtually all of the methadone overdoses involved the pill or wafer form of the drug, which is prescribed by doctors as a painkiller, and not the liquid form, which is dispensed by the clinics.

As fatal overdoses from prescription drugs have risen sharply in western Virginia, so has the amount of painkillers prescribed by the region’s doctors.

From 1998 to 2002, when methadone deaths went from six to 62, the volume of the drug prescribed increased by 500 percent, according to Drug Enforcement Administration figures. The figure does not include the liquid form of the drug.

Oxycodone prescriptions for the region increased by about 210 percent from 1998 to 2000. Prescriptions of hydrocodone increased by 107 percent over five years.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has said it will file a legal challenge if Gov. Mark Warner signs into law legislation that would prohibit methadone clinics from operating within a half-mile of a school or day care center.

The governor’s office said last week that Mr. Warner would review the bill mindful of the law.

“It’s not the threat of legal action that is a motivating factor” for the review, spokeswoman Ellen Qualls said.

Mr. Warner has until mid-April to act. The bill passed with a veto-proof margin.

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