October 21, 2021

Methadone: how it works and why it’s legal

methadone cup

Methadone is a prescription drug and is part of a group of drugs known as opioids.  It has been used successfully to treat opioid dependence for more than 40 years.1 Opioids are depressant drugs, which means they slow down messages travelling between the brain and body.1

Colloquially, methadone is not known as ‘meth’. Meth is a shortened name for methamphetamine, which belongs to a different group of drugs known as stimulants.

Methadone is taken as a replacement for heroin and other opioids as part of treatment known as pharmacotherapy. Replacing a drug of dependence with a prescribed drug helps to stabilise the lives of people who are dependent on heroin and other opioids, and to reduce the harms related to drug use.1

The aim of methadone treatment is to determine the correct dose for each person and prevent cravings. This allows people to re-establish a quality of life once they have stopped using illicit opioids – it’s not to provide a ‘high’.1,4

On a snapshot day in 2020, more than 53,300 people received pharmacotherapy at 3,084 dosing points across Australia.2

Does methadone impair people’s judgement?

Methadone treatment is provided slightly differently in Australia’s states and territories. Health professionals are involved in the prescription, administration and ongoing use.3 When a person decides to stop using illicit opioids, they work with their health provider to determine the correct methadone dose for them.

This period is called the ‘stabilisation period’ and lasts for about two weeks. During this time, clients are advised not to operate heavy machinery or drive as their body will be adjusting to the medication.

When a person has an oral dose of methadone, it takes approximately 30 minutes to start being absorbed and reaches peak levels between one to four hours. If a person is on a stable methadone dose and not using other drugs (or withdrawing), their thinking or reaction time shouldn’t be affected.5

Stigma and the impact of misinformation

When drugs are used to treat familiar medical conditions such as hay fever, the community accepts this as a part of daily life.

Common medication may have warnings that it can cause nausea and or/drowsiness, and so people are given the choice about how many tablets they will take.

However, in the case of methadone, there is misconception about who uses this medication, how often, and how it affects their daily activities. People who are on a methadone program must follow strict conditions, including when they take the medication. They must attend a specific pharmacy or clinic, present identification, and take an oral syrup in front of a health professional.3

People on methadone programs are like people with other long-term medical conditions that may require ongoing maintenance medications.4

In the past reports in the media regarding methadone have been misleading and sensationalised. They have negatively portrayed a small group of people receiving medical treatment for a specific health condition. This has compromised their safety, livelihood and control over their own lives. It’s contributed to stigma for a small group of Australians who are working to improve their lives.

The ADF is committed to working with communities to reduce the harm caused by alcohol and other drugs, and we strive to remove the stigma surrounding people who use alcohol and other drugs.

  1. Brands B; Sproule B; & Marshman J. (Eds.) (1998) Drugs & Drug Abuse (3rd Ed.) Ontario: Addiction Research Foundation.
  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. National Opioid Pharmacotherapy Statistics Annual Data collection [Internet]. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2021 [cited 2021 Jul. 12].
  3. The Department of Health. (2011, April 18). Review of methadone treatment in Australia. Retrieved from Illicit Drugs
  4. Rankin, J. & Mattick, R. (1997). Review of the effectiveness of methadone maintenance treatment and analysis of St. Mary’s clinic, Sydney.
  5. Preston, A. (2012). The Methadone Handbook. Melbourne: Alcohol and Drug Foundation.

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