MORE than 700 heroin addicts in the Lothians have been left to take methadone with virtually no supervision.
The methadone users were allowed to take the dangerous drug home for almost the whole of last year. Hundreds of other addicts take the drug unsupervised at home at least once a week, usually because pharmacies are shut on Sundays.
The news has sparked fears in the wake of the tragedy of toddler Derek Doran, who died last December after drinking his parents' methadone.
Figures obtained by the Evening News show 723 methadone users prescribed the drug between April and September last year were only required to take it in the presence of a medical professional for two weeks, and administered the doses themselves the rest of the time.
The news comes as Derek's parents, Derek Doran senior, 21, and Lisa Dodds, 25, made a second appearance in court charged with the murder of their son by giving him the drug in their home. They appeared in private at Edinburgh Sheriff Court yesterday, days after appearing at court in Haddington.
The two-year-old was found dead in his bed by his mother at their home in Elphinstone, shortly before Christmas last year. The couple remain in custody.
There were calls today for an urgent investigation into whether any of the other addicts taking methadone at home had children in the house.
Professor Neil McKeganey, of the University of Glasgow's centre for drug misuse research, was today set to speak at Napier University's Child Protection Conference about the impact on children of having drug-addicted parents.
He said: "I think as a matter of urgency, the health board needs to establish whether any of these 720 people have dependant children at home. In the light of recent incidents, we have to ensure that there are no children in the homes who may have access to methadone.
"We know now that methadone is a hugely dangerous drug when consumed by someone who does not have a regular habit - especially a child."
Scottish Tory leader Annabelle Goldie said: "I accept that there are some circumstances where methadone needs to be taken at home, but this should be the exception rather than the rule because there could be tragic consequences."
The figures released by NHS Lothian under the Freedom of Information Act showed a total of 3450 patients were prescribed methadone between April and September 2005. However, more than 20 per cent of users took the drug at home in the previous year, taking it in front of a health worker in a pharmacy or clinic for only the required two weeks in 52.
All new methadone users now have to take it under supervision for the first three months of the treatment programme. Unless pharmacists raise concerns, they can normally choose to take it at home after that, returning to be supervised for only two weeks of every year.
A spokesman for the Scottish Executive said: "Methadone, as with any other prescription item, must be left ultimately to the judgement of the professional clinician, based on the circumstances of the individual patient.
"However, we are currently building a picture of the way methadone is used in current drug-treatment regimes, to be ready by this autumn. If there is a need to revise guidelines, we will not hesitate to act further."
Dr Alison McCallum, director of public health and health policy at NHS Lothian, said: "All patients either starting or re-starting a methadone programme are supervised until clinical judgement determines the patient is stable. Thereafter, patients continue to receive minimum regular supervision of two weeks per annum.
"We are reviewing and updating our substance misuse strategy, which will be in line with evidence and effectiveness and national guidelines. Methadone prescribing will form part of this review."