What is methadone?
Methadone is a synthetic opiate manufactured for use as a painkiller and as substitute for heroin in the treatment of heroin addiction. It has similar effects to heroin but doesn't deliver the same degree of buzz or high as heroin.
Opiates are sedative drugs that depress the nervous system. They slow down body functioning and reduce physical and psychological pain.
A patient who is addicted to heroin will often be prescribed methadone to take instead of heroin and the dose of methadone is gradually reduced over time. This means that the patient can give up heroin avoiding acute withdrawal symptoms.
The key effects of methadone include:
- Reducing physical and psychological pain.
- Feelings of warmth, relaxation and detachment.
- Overdoses that can lead to coma (and even death from respiratory failure i.e. when breathing stops).
See also opiate/opioid painkillers
What does methadone look like?
Methadone prescribed to people trying to come off ‘street’ heroin is usually a green liquid which is swallowed, but it can come in tablet or injectable form.
How is methadone taken?
In treatment of addiction, methadone dose is usually aimed initially at preventing the withdrawal symptoms that would otherwise develop when street heroin is stopped. The methadone dose can subsequently be reduced by agreement with the patient until the user is off the drug completely.
This allows people time to tackle their psychological addiction and to stabilise their lifestyle. There may still be some problems with opiate withdrawal symptoms, depending how fast methadone is withdrawn but this substitution treatment is much less severe than going 'cold turkey'.
Sometimes methadone ends up on the black market. It might be stolen from a pharmacy, stolen from a patient or a patient might sell their methadone. Prices can vary from region to region, but on average, the cost of street methadone is £1 per 10ml.
What are the effects of methadone?
Methadone is a sedative drug that depress the nervous system. Its effects can start quickly and can last several hours.
These effects include:
- Slowing down body functioning and reducing physical and psychological pain.
- Feelings of warmth, relaxation and detachment.
- Relieving feelings of anxiety
- Depressing the nervous system and the breathing, with risk of fatal overdose.
What are the risks of methadone?
Taking methadone illegally does involve risks. Methadone that’s prescribed by a doctor is subject to stringent controls, as with any other medicine, so you can be sure of its strength and that it has not been tampered with. You can't be as sure with methadone that's bought on the street how pure it is. Here’s what it could do to you:
- Street methadone may be an unusually concentrated variant and more powerful than expected.
- Some people are sick the first time they take it and they can become very constipated.
- With high doses, users feel sleepy. Even higher, and the user can fall into a coma or stop breathing completely.
- Opiates may possibly increase the risk of miscarriage and still births and opiate users may give birth to smaller babies. However, it's not a good idea to stop using opiates suddenly if you're pregnant as this can cause premature labour and miscarriage. Methadone can be continued throughout pregnancy to minimise such risks.
Methadone and alcohol
Mixing methadone with alcohol, or with other sedatives such as benzodiazepines, can have serious consequences: an overdose is more likely, and this can lead to a coma or respiratory failure and death.
Methadone bought on the street may have been tampered with and there’s no way of knowing how strong it will be, increasing the risk of overdose.
Can you get addicted to methadone?
Because methadone has similar effects to heroin, you can easily become addicted – especially if you are taking methadone to get ‘high’. You can build tolerance to it, needing higher doses to get the same effects; and can develop marked withdrawals, particularly if its use is stopped suddenly.
However, if methadone is used appropriately as part of treatment of a painful condition, there is much less chance of becoming addicted. The patient is usually monitored by their doctor and the dose of methadone is reduced over time as the painful condition improves.
Methadone and the law
- Methadone is a Class A drug illegal to have, give away or sell.
- Possession can get you up to seven years in jail.
- Supplying someone else, even your friends, can get you life imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.
Did you know?
- A conviction for a drug-related offence could have a serious impact. It can stop you visiting certain countries – for example the United States – and limit the types of jobs you can apply for.
- Your driving licence is invalid while on a methadone treatment programme unless agreed by the DVLA following receipt of supportive medical advice.
- Like drinking and driving, driving while high is illegal – and you may still be unfit to drive the day after using methadone. You can get a heavy fine, be disqualified from driving or even go to prison.
- Allowing other people to use methadone in your house or any other premises is illegal. If the police catch someone using methadone in a club they can prosecute the landlord, club owner or person holding the party.