New methadone treatment worries Vancouver users

Increased potency raises concerns about overdoses

When Laura Shaver goes to her local pharmacy Saturday to get her daily cup of methadone, she’ll notice two things: the cup won’t be as full and the liquid will be a different colour.

That’s because a new cherry-flavoured methadone formula called Methadose, which is 10 times the strength of the current mix of liquid and powder, will be available at pharmacies Feb. 1.

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The B.C. government says Methadose, which will come strictly in liquid form, will provide a safer, more consistent treatment for patients seeking withdrawal from drugs such as heroin.

“While the current methadone formula needs to be compounded, this new formula does not — which means it will help reduce the risk of errors associated with manual compounding such as the risk of overdose,” said a release from the B.C. Ministry of Health.

Shaver, 36, has been on methadone for 12 years and said she stopped injecting heroin four years ago. Her normal dose of methadone mix is 150 millilitres per day and the new formula will mean she will ingest only 15 millilitres.

Still, Shaver said she’s nervous about taking Methadose because of its potency and the effect an extra millilitre or two could have on a person.

“One or two extra millilitres is no longer one or two, it’s 10 or 20,” said Shaver, president of the B.C. Association Of People on Methadone and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.

It’s common knowledge among drug users, she added, that some pharmacies “water down” methadone, which means a person is not actually getting a full dose.

“It’s not even watering it down but not being very careful with the proper measurements,” Shaver said. “And we’re worried that the people who have been getting their methadone watered down, that they will now be getting their real dose and could get high.”

Another concern for Shaver is that — as is the case with methadone — there will undoubtedly be people illegally selling Methadose on the street. Users unaware of the drug’s potency could lead to overdose, she said.

The government says doctors and pharmacists have been provided with additional education and training in preparation for the transition and will advise patients.

Mykle Ludvigsen, spokesperson for the College of Pharmacists of B.C., said complaints about pharmacists mentioned by Shaver should be directed to the college for investigation.

“If we find that pharmacists are doing things that are untoward, we want to know about them,” said Ludvigsen, noting more than 4,000 pharmacists have been trained in administering Methadose.

The training has been coupled with a B.C.-wide public awareness campaign involving health agencies and City of Vancouver building inspectors leaving leaflets under doors and in lobbies of single-room-occupancy hotels.

“We’ve really tried to get the word out to everyone we can but it is a hard-to-reach audience,” Ludvigsen said.

To be sure all methadone users understand the change, Shaver and friends spent part of Wednesday putting up “think before you drink” posters on the streets and in pharmacies and clinics.

More than 13,000 people were on methadone in B.C. when the Office of the Provincial Health Officer released a report in February 2013 on the province’s methadone program.

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