German scientists synthesized methadone during World War II because of a shortage of morphine. Although chemically unlike morphine or heroin, methadone produces many of the same effects.
Introduced into the United States in 1947 as an analgesic (Dolophinel), it is primarily used today for the treatment of narcotic addiction. It is available in oral solutions, tablets, and injectable Schedule II formulations, and is almost as effective when administered orally as it is by injection.
Methadone’s effects can last up to 24 hours, thereby permitting once-a-day oral administration in heroin detoxification and maintenance programs.
High-dose methadone can block the effects of heroin, thereby discouraging the continued use of heroin by addicts under treatment with methadone.
But chronic administration of methadone results in the development of tolerance and dependence. The withdrawal syndrome develops more slowly and is less severe but more prolonged than that associated with heroin withdrawal.
Ironically, methadone used to control narcotic addiction is frequently encountered on the illicit market and has been associated with an increasing number of overdose deaths.
According to the US Department of Justice:
“Although methadone has been legally available in the United States since 1947, more recently it has emerged as a drug of abuse. This trend may be driven in part by the ready availability of the drug as it increasingly is used in the treatment of narcotic addiction and to relieve chronic pain.
“Individuals who abuse methadone risk becoming tolerant of and physically dependent on the drug. When these individuals stop using the drug they may experience withdrawal symptoms including muscle tremors, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps.
“Overdosing on methadone poses an additional risk. In some instances, individuals who abuse other narcotics (such as heroin or OxyContin) turn to methadone because of its increasing availability. Methadone, however, does not produce the euphoric rush associated with those other drugs; thus, these users often consume dangerously large quantities of methadone in a vain attempt to attain the desired effect.”