John White, the Elkhart County Coroner, says he is seeing methadone take the lead in overdose deaths, making a trend that is not slowing.
White says that it is the “number one problem drug in this county.”
There have been 49 deaths in Elkhart Co. since 2007 in which a methadone overdose was either a prominent or sole cause of death.
Methadone is unique and dangerous due to its long half-life (how long the drug remains in your system) of eight to 59 hours. The effects felt only last a few hours. Consumers will often feel the drug isn’t working and take more, when the previous half-life still has yet to wear off.
“They may not feel the effects of the drug, but their body still feels the effects of the drug,” says White.
The overlap can be deadly. When too much of the drug is taken, it can cause respiratory and cardiac depression, causing the user to go into a coma and die.
Police officers will often carry a drug called narcan, which can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose. Narcan does not reverse the effect of heroin’s synthetic cousin methadone. Once an overdose occurs, there is no way to reverse the symptoms, even with emergency treatment.
White fears doctors haven’t sat people down and made them understand the potential risk of the drug.
He also is worried that on-the-street methadone is being confused with methamphetamine, which is a drug that gives the user energy. Methadone will slow the user down. If someone takes methadone and expects the “upper” high of methamphetamine, they can easily take more, thinking the drug isn’t working. By then it is often too late.
About the Drug
The drug has often been used as a means to dissuade heroin addicts and act as a monitored replacement. It has been noted for being almost as addictive as heroin.
Methadone that is administered as a replacement for heroin addiction by rehabilitation clinics, but is highly monitored when it is administered.
White is seeing overdoses from those who have a prescription (40 percent of overdoses) and from those who are obtaining it on the street (60 percent).
Prescriptions for methadone cannot be overextended, said White. Unlike other non-narcotic medications the limit that is listed on the bottle instructions is exactly what you can take without being in danger.
Developing a tolerance for methadone is fairly easy, and doctors bear this in mind when writing prescriptions. What is a correct dose for one person could kill another.
Around the State
Indiana has seen a huge uptick in heroin related deaths, trafficking and busts in the last few years. Elkhart County has — to White’s surprise — not felt the same effects as the rest of the state. He speculates Elkhart is just far enough east from the Chicago pipeline to not be a draw for those moving the product, often leaving dealings and addictions in the wake.
White has only had two heroin overdoses during the last two years. In neighboring St. Joseph County coroner, Randy Magdalinski, has seen a drastic decrease in methadone related deaths in the past two years.
According to White, it comes in waves for Elkhart. They will go two or three months and not have a methadone death, and then they will have several all at once. He thinks it’s correlated to the availability of the drug on street corner and on the black market.