What next for Scotland’s methadone programme?

THE Scottish Government is to introduce a new system to record methadone usage following criticisms that more oversight was required to judge its effectiveness.

Methadone is prescribed to addicts as a susbstitute for illegal drugs such as heroin as part of their rehabilitation. Picture: Dan Phillips
Methadone is prescribed to addicts as a susbstitute for illegal drugs such as heroin as part of their rehabilitation. Picture: Dan Phillips

The synthetic drug is available via the NHS on prescription to heroin and morphine addicts. It is designed to wean users off their habits as part of their rehabilitation.

But some experts believe the methadone programme is being used too widely.

Figures obtained by the BBC revealed pharmacists north of the border were paid £17.8m for dispensing almost half a million methadone prescriptions in 2014.

Methadone Picture: Ian Rutherford

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There are thought to be more than 20,000 people receiving methadone in Scotland, but there are fears that many could have been using the drug for years.

“There are no accurate figures on the number of individuals receiving methadone or the number of those coming off the programme,” said Dr Neil McKeganey, of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research, in an interview with The Scotsman.

“We don’t have the very basic information to judge the effectiveness of this programme.

“It completely mystifies me as to why this situation persists. In England there is very good information on the numbers receiving methadone.”

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Dr McKeganey believes that methadone, which has been prescribed since the 1980s, does have a role to play in the treatment of opiate addicts - but more data is required to understand its potential risks.

“It would be worrying under any circumstance given the marked increase of drug-related deaths in Scotland, and the proportion of those deaths connected to methadone,” he added.

“As a country with one of the highest numbers of drug-related deaths in Europe, it’s completely unacceptable that we don’t know how many people are on methadone, how much they are getting, and how many are coming off it.

“We have too many services not collecting enough information. There is no one acting as an over-all authority. It’s individual judgements made by individual doctors as to who gets methadone.”

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A Scottish Government-commissioned review in 2013 concluded that opiate addicts should continue to be treated with methadone.

Ministers are now looking at ways of how more accurate figures on methadone usage in Scotland can be collected.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Figures show a decline in both the cost of methadone ingredients and the amount of methadone dispensed between 2013/14 and 2014/15 in Scotland, with these being the continuation of a downward trend in recent years.

“We have been working closely with Information Services Division Scotland and other partners on development of a new data collection system which will report on the numbers of people receiving opiate replacement therapies, including methadone, and assessing the effectiveness of these treatments in supporting individuals and reducing the harm caused by drug use.

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“This information system is expected to be implemented by late 2016, with the first data publication likely to be in summer 2017.”