Methadone: Not Just for Junkies Anymore 

As the drug moves beyond methadone clinics and into everyday use as a painkiller, overdoses related to its slow-onset effect are growing increasingly common. The very traits that help heroin addicts can kill other drug users.

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Nina's situation is a bit different. Methadone zaps the back pain she's endured for five years better than anything she's ever tried. And she's sampled a lot in her 46 years, both legally and not, from Valium to Vicodin to morphine. "Everything I used before eventually backfired," said the administrative assistant, who works for a city agency in Berkeley. "I also have an unusual reaction — I get euphoria. I have energy that I don't normally have, and I think it makes me nicer and easier to work with. To be frank, I love the stuff!"

Nina discovered methadone when a friend who used it for chronic pain gave her a few pills. She'd found her solution. But locating a doctor to write her a prescription was no easy feat. "They accused me of being a drug addict," she said. Indeed, several East Bay pain specialists said that if a new patient asked specifically for methadone, they'd be highly suspicious and unlikely to treat her. When Nina finally found one who'd give her methadone, the dose was so low it didn't help her pain. So she enrolled in a methadone clinic. "I called up Berkeley Addiction Services and got on the program," she said. "Every morning I'd go over there at 5:30 and drink my pink drink." After a few weeks she connected with an outside doctor willing to work with her.

Still, she struggles to stick to her prescribed dose, knowing that, for her, a little more methadone means a little more euphoria. "I'm trying to do what I'm supposed to do, because it's given me my life back," she said. "But the temptation to take more than I'm supposed to is always there." To counter it, she stashes some of her pills at a friend's house, and tucks just enough in her purse each morning to get her through the day.

When I asked if she ever drinks alcohol, she groaned: "Of course, I tried it! My goodness, I couldn't pass out fast enough. I'm probably lucky I woke up."

If Mike and Nina represent legal users, then Frances could be the poster child for recreational dabblers. Not too long ago, she recalled, she was at a friend's apartment, drunk on beer and sake, when she wandered into his roommate's room and spotted an Altoids tin. "No one keeps an Altoids tin filled with mints lying around," she observed. Frances opened it and saw dozens of unfamiliar, white pills. When the roommate returned home a little while later, she asked him if he had anything he'd sell her for $5. He popped open the tin and placed a 5 mg pill in her palm. Then he added another, gratis. He told her what it was and she was all too aware of what it could to do her, but she didn't care. "I just wanted to get high," she said. She chewed on the first pill and took a few sips of water. A few minutes later she crunched on the other. Then she passed out on her friend's couch. When she woke up the next morning, she was sweating.

"I felt as sick as I've ever been, like my whole body was poison," she said. "If the house was on fire, I wasn't going to go anywhere." Twenty-four hours after taking the methadone, she finally managed to pull herself together enough to leave. "I remember sitting up to pull one boot on — and then the other." She mimicked the task in impossibly slow motion. "I tell you, it took three hours. I drove home, about ten blocks, though how I made it I don't know." Though the sweats soon subsided, she compares the high to a bad two-day acid trip. She spent most of it in bed, or on her sofa. She said she hasn't touched opiates since, attends the occasional AA meeting, and will start classes at San Francisco State as a full-time junior in a few weeks. "I'm working on my sobriety."

Around noon on August 17, 2004, Simon called Frances and asked her to accompany him to Hayward, where he had some reporting to do. He mentioned checking out a local band at the Bistro on B Street, but Frances figured his real focus would be scoring drugs. A few nights earlier, they'd been lying in her bed, high on his last two OxyContin tablets, listening to a remastered Rolling Stones disc. "God, how I love opiates!" he'd sighed earnestly, and she'd laughed at how sincere yet silly he could be. Frances told Simon she couldn't go.

He often went call-crazy when he was smashed, but on this night his friends said he broke all records, leaving long-winded messages with half of Ohio. Simon's last call of the night may have been to Frances, who was at a show. She didn't realize he'd phoned until the next morning.

Simon was snoring loudly on the couch when Jason and his girlfriend came in around one a.m. Although they had a spare bedroom for Simon to use, he'd been sleeping in the living room since their return a few days ago — he said he liked the way their cat hopped up and sprawled on top of him there. So they tiptoed quietly past him.

When Jason clambered down the stairs and sounded a wake-up call at ten the next morning, Simon didn't respond. He wasn't breathing, and when Jason pressed a hand on his chest a clear red fluid trickled between his lips. He was dead. The police found no evidence to explain it. No bottles or baggies or pills, not even an empty beer can or glass tinged with alcohol.

Across the bay in Oakland, Frances woke up and checked her voicemail. The time stamp read 10:41 p.m. She smiled at the sound of Simon's voice:

"Francie, I'm leaving Hayward. I copped a bunch of methadone pills this guy practically gave me just for talking to him, and I want to come share them with you." He hiccuped. "I hope you have a good night, because you know I will!"

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