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Methadone belongs to a group of strong pain killing drugs called Opioids. It is a totally synthetic product, similar in chemical composition to opiates such as morphine and heroin.

Slang Names
Dolly, meth.

Forms and Appearance
Methadone is usually seen as small white tablets, clear injectable ampoules and as a brown, orange or green mixture.

Medical and Other Uses
Methadone in the form of a syrup is used to treat heroin-dependent people. In Australia, methadone is only legal within a treatment program. It is available in all States and Territories except the Northern Territory. In some situations take-away doses are also available. Generally a person has to be over 18 years of age and can only go on a methadone treatment program after being assessed by a doctor who is an approved methadone prescriber. Usually people pick up their daily dose at a clinic or pharmacy. (Unauthorised prescription carries heavy penalties.)

There are a number of reasons why methadone is preferable to being dependent on heroin.

Firstly, methadone is swallowed. This cuts out the risk of using shared or dirty injecting equipment and becoming infected with hepatitis B or C or HIV.

Secondly, methadone can be administered in a controlled way. This means that the drug is dispensed in a clinical environment so there is no risk of it being impure.

Thirdly, the effects of methadone last up to 24 hours and this means a person only needs 1 dose per day to control withdrawal. These factors help stabilise a person’s lifestyle. It reduces the stress and anxiety of where the next dose of heroin is coming from and encourages people to look after themselves and others better.

A person on methadone is also more likely to hold down a job. Methadone is cheaper than heroin and the extra money can further improve the health and lifestyle of a person. Criminal activities to buy illegal drugs are also reduced.

Methods of Use
Methadone can be given orally or by injection.

Effects of Use
The effects of methadone are similar to heroin.

Immediate
These can include: relief from pain and feelings of well-being. Physically, the pupils of the eye become smaller, body temperature drops, and blood pressure and pulse slow down. There may be nausea and vomiting. Methadone may also affect a person’s ability to drive a car or operate heavy machinery.

Long Term
These include increased sweating and constipation. Both men and women may experience sexual problems and a woman’s menstrual cycle may be disrupted. Most of these effects will disappear with dose adjustments and as the person’s lifestyle improves.

Tolerance and Dependence
Tolerance will develop slowly with continued use. A previously acquired tolerance to heroin can be transferred to methadone. A powerful physical and psychological dependence develops with continued use.

Withdrawal
Stopping methadone abruptly can lead to withdrawal symptoms. Usually they begin one to three days after the last dose. They can include:

  • uneasiness,
  • yawning,
  • diarrhoea,
  • stomach cramps,
  • runny nose,
  • sleeping difficulties
  • joint pain.

These symptoms reach their peak on the sixth day but some may last for a few weeks.

Overdose
Overdose can happen when more than the prescribed dose is taken, when methadone is injected or when methadone is taken with other drugs such as alcohol or minor tranquillisers.

Physeptone tablets containing methadone, widely used in the treatment of heroin addiction

Physeptone ampoules, with methadone in injectable form

Methadone linctus contains methadone hydrochloride and may be prescribed to control a distress cough in terminal disease

Methadone mixture (BNF), a greenish-coloured liquid is two-and-a-half times stronger than methadone linctus and it is used inthe treatment of heroin addiction. It contains an irritant which discourages injecting.

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