Heroin substitute sold by doctor killed drug addict

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TOUGHER measures to curb the prescription of methadone by private doctors was urged yesterday following fresh concerns at the rising death toll among addicts using the drug.

A leading coroner called on Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to set up an inquiry into the apparent easy availability of methadone, used as a supposedly less dangerous substitute for heroin. This followed the latest methadone fatality - a 41-year-old woman from Chelsea, south-west London, who had been paying pounds 30 a week for her drugs from a private doctor.

The number of deaths among notified addicts caused by over-dosing on methadone rose in England and Wales to 116 in 1995 from 74 in 1993; it now makes up about one-fifth of all fatal overdoses among registered addicts. The number of methadone notified addicts dying from poisoning increased to 154 in 1995, also a record total. About 14,000 people in England and Wales were registered as methadone addicts in 1996.

Last year, methadone killed three times as many people in Scotland as heroin - 91 people died from the drug as opposed to 31 heroin deaths.

A Department of Health working group is looking into the issue of how best to help people withdraw from heroin use, which includes the issue of methadone. There is evidence, backed by recent Home Office research, of a flourishing black-market in methadone often linked to lax prescribing practices.

Dr Paul Knapman, the Westminster coroner, yesterday expressed his worries about the availability of the drug after hearing how Stephanie Jean Lea, 41, died after overdosing on methadone last February. Dr Knapman recorded a verdict of death by methadone intoxication caused by drug dependency.

The inquest at Westminster coroner's court was told that Mrs Lea paid a weekly sum of pounds 30 to her private doctor in exchange for a cocktail of drugs, before she was struck off last November. Reading a statement from an earlier hearing by Mrs Lea's husband, Dr Knapman said: "Mr Lea says it is simple. He suggests that if you have the money then you can get drugs. He says it is like a business transaction that doctors know about."

But Mrs Lea's former doctor, Dr Tom Onen, described her as a "chronic drug addict" and blamed the increase in methadone deaths on lack of funding which meant inadequate services.

After the inquest, Dr Knapman disclosed that he had written to the Home Secretary last month voicing his concerns about methadone prescriptions.

His letter said: "I hope that you may consider a review of the present situation whereby any doctor may prescribe injectable methadone privately to any patient, and to consider a review of monitoring procedures with a view to possible regulation."

Methadone-related deaths are frequently linked to a thriving black market where it is sold as a cut-price fix. Drug dealers posing as heroin addicts defraud the health service of hundred of thousands of pounds a year, duping gullible clinics and GPs into giving them the liquid drug and then selling it on at prices way below those commanded for other class A drugs.

According to Home Office officials and medical experts, many doctors' surgeries are targeted by dealers who see them as a "soft touch".