What is methadone?
Methadone belongs to a group of strong pain-killing drugs called opioids. They include codeine, morphine, and heroin.
How is methadone used?
Methadone comes in the form of a syrup and 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, takeaway doses are also available.
Who can receive methadone treatment?
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.
Why is methadone a better alternative to heroin?
There are a number of reasons why methadone is preferable to being dependent on heroin.
First, 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.
Second, 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.
Third, the effects of methadone last up to 24 hours and this means a person only needs one dose a day to control withdrawal. These factors help stabilise a person's lifestyle. It reduces the stress and anxiety over 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 also 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.
What are the effects of methadone?
The effects of methadone are similar to heroin. They can include relief from pain, feeling of wellbeing, nausea, and vomiting.
- The pupils of the eye become smaller.
- Body temperature drops.
- Blood pressure and pulse slow down.
Methadone may also affect a person's ability to drive a car or operate heavy machinery.
Long term effects
People who use methadone for a long time may experience 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.
Stopping methadone abruptly can lead to withdrawal symptoms. Usually they begin one to three days after the last dose. They can include:
- 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.
Can you overdose on methadone?
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.
Methadone and the law
In NSW, methadone is classified as a prohibited drug. Penalties for the possession, trade, or manufacture of methadone range from $5,000 and/or 2 years in prison to a $500,000 fine and/or life imprisonment.
Only doctors authorised by the Secretary of Health can lawfully prescribe methadone. Unauthorised prescription also carries heavy penalties.
Further information and help
Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) is a 24 hour confidential telephone counselling service. Phone: (02) 9361 8000 or toll free: 1800 422 599.
Drug and alcohol service intake numbers
These centralised numbers are the first point of contact for people seeking assistance for drug and alcohol problems. Callers may be assessed by telephone and referred to relevant services within the local health district.
Centralised intake lines operate Monday to Friday during business hours.
Metropolitan local health districts
Northern Sydney/Central Coast
- North Sydney - 1300 889 788
- Central Coast - (02) 4394 4880
South Eastern Sydney/Illawarra
- South East Sydney - (02) 9113 4444
- Illawarra - (02) 1300 652 226
Sydney South West
- South West Sydney - (02) 9616 8586
- Central Sydney - (02) 9515 6311
- Wentworth - (02) 4734 1333
- Western Sydney - (02) 9840 3355
Rural local health districts
- Greater Murray - 1800 800 944 or (02) 9425 3923
- Southern - 1800 809 423
- Far West - 1800 665 066 or 08 8080 1556
- Macquarie - 1800 092 881 or (02) 6841 2360
- Mid Western - 1300 887 000
- Hunter - (02) 4923 2060
- New England - 1300 660 059
- Local health district - 1300 662 263
- Mid North Coast - (02) 6588 2882
- Northern Rivers - (02) 6620 7612