Factors Influencing Methadone-Related Mortality

"Still, methadone is a potent drug; fatal overdoses have been reported over the years (Baden, 1970; Gardner, 1970; Clark, et al., 1995; Drummer, et al., 1992). As with most other opioids, the primary toxic effect of excessive methadone is respiratory depression and hypoxia, sometimes accompanied by pulmonary edema and/or aspiration pneumonia (White and Irvine, 1999; Harding-Pink, 1993). Among patients in addiction treatment, the largest proportion of methadone-associated deaths have occurred during the drug's induction phase, usually when (1) treatment personnel overestimate a patient's degree of tolerance to opioids, or (2) a patient uses opioids or other central nervous system (CNS) depressant drugs in addition to the prescribed methadone (Karch and Stephens, 2000; Caplehorn, 1998; Harding-Pink, 1991; Davoli, et al., 1993). In fact, when deaths occur during later stages of treatment, other drugs usually are detected at postmortem examination (Appel, et al., 2000). In particular, researchers have called attention to the 'poison cocktail' resulting from the intake of multiple psychotropic drugs (Borron, et al., 2001; Haberman, et al., 1995) such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, and other opioids. When used alone, many of these substances are relatively moderate respiratory depressants; however, when combined with methadone, their additive or synergistic effects can be lethal (Kramer, 2003; Payte and Zweben, 1998).
"It is important to note that postmortem blood concentrations of methadone do not appear to reliably distinguish between individuals who have died from methadone toxicity and those in whom the presence of methadone is purely coincidental (Drummer, 1997; Caplan, et al., 1983)."


Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, "Methadone-Associated Mortality: Report of a National Assessment, May 8-9, 2003," CSAT Publication No. 28-03 (Rockville, MD: Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2004), p. 11.