Methadone is a synthetic opiate drug, which was developed by German chemists in the late 1930s to compensate for the shortage of opium in Germany at the time.

Effects of methadone

The effects are similar to heroin in reducing physical and psychological pain and inducing feelings of euphoria, warmth, relaxation, and detachment. Methadone is an effective painkiller, which is used medically to manage pain in post-operative patients and people with a terminal illness and is available in tablet and injectable form, but is usually prescribed as a syrup that is swallowed. The drug is widely used as a substitute for heroin in the treatment of addiction to illicit heroin. Methadone maintenance or  substitution programmes are claimed to be highly effective in the treatment of heroin addiction. In these programmes, methadone is prescribed to wean dependent people off illicit heroin use by reducing the heroin withdrawal symptoms. Effectively the addiction to heroin is replaced by addiction to methadone. However, it appears that the chaotic, often criminally active, lifestyle of heroin dependent people can be arrested, allowing people to stabilise their lives, improve their health, and become socially productive.

Maintenance Programmes

Methadone maintenance programmes were first developed in 1964 and research has shown that they reduce or eliminate illicit heroin use, reduce mortality rates, reduce criminal activity, and reduce the transmission of infectious diseases such as hepatitis and HIV associated with intravenous heroin use. Although methadone is itself physically addictive, it is claimed to be less psychologically addictive than heroin because it does not produce the same intense feelings of euphoria and has, therefore less positively reinforcing effects than heroin. However, methadone’s less intense euphoric effect makes it easier to gradually reduce the dose until physical dependence stops. Furthermore, methadone’s withdrawal syndrome is claimed to be less intense, which should make detoxification less problematic, although many dependent people report the withdrawal period to be longer and more painful than heroin withdrawal.

Methadone maintenance has attracted controversy over the years, principally because of the moral dilemma posed to governments and addiction professions in replacing one dependency with another, arguably more dangerous one. It is claimed that methadone use is more dangerous than legal heroin use because of the increased risk of death especially when methadone is combined with alcohol. However, a recent report from the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse confirms methadone maintenance as a valuable aid in assisting people to become drug free and can be seen as the first step on the road to recovery. The report goes on to urge the government to focus more on supporting the currently estimated 260,000 heroin dependent people to recover from their dependency.