LACONIA, N.H. — When her 20-year-old son stumbled home one night last October, Gail DeLucca told him to go to bed and sleep it off. "I love you, Ray," she called up the stairs, figuring she would wait until morning to lecture him about drinking.
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But it wasn't alcohol that made her son so woozy. It was methadone, and it killed him.
Raymond DeLucca was one of 168 people to die of drug overdoses in New Hampshire last year. That was more than the number killed in car crashes. More than half the drug deaths involved methadone, and an alarming eight of them happened in Laconia, a city of about 17,000.
"After about the fifth one, we had a meeting and said this is crazy," said Police Chief Michael Moyer.
Nationwide, methadone deaths are increasing at a faster rate than any other drug-related deaths, the National Center for Health Statistics reported in February. According to the most recent data available, the number of methadone deaths nationwide rose from 786 in 1999 to 4,462 in 2005, a nearly six-fold increase. By comparison, fatal cocaine overdoses rose 63 percent, from 3,832 to 6,228.
Drug often stolen, sold or shared
Though it is best known as a prescription drug that curbs heroin addiction, methadone has been increasingly prescribed as a pain medication, and officials say it is those pills that have led to the increase in deaths.
In many cases, the drug is being stolen in transit between manufacturers and pharmacies. Also, patients with methadone prescriptions are selling or sharing their pills.
In some states, including Maine and New Hampshire, methadone has become the leading cause of drug-related deaths, overtaking even cocaine and heroin. That is prompting some police and prosecutors to get tough.
In Vermont, a woman was charged last month with giving methadone to a friend who slipped into a coma and died. In New Hampshire, four people have been charged in connection with DeLucca's death, and a task force is investigating Laconia's seven other deaths in hopes of bringing charges.
"In past years on an overdose death, no, we would not usually have done a really thorough investigation," Moyer said. "Now we treat it more like a crime scene when we go to one of these."
Gail DeLucca said she realizes that her son wasn't blameless — she knew he had a drug problem — but she wants the others involved to be held accountable. The methadone that killed him was obtained illegally from a friend who had bought it from a local couple, she said.
"It was a bad choice, and he paid for it with his life," she said. But "the other people made a bad choice in selling it, and now it's their turn to pay for what they did."
Methadone combined with other drugs
Though methadone isn't the leading cause of drug deaths in Vermont — the painkiller oxycodone, often sold under the brand name OxyContin, holds that distinction — nearly three-quarters of the 80 drug-related deaths last year involved the class of drug to which both oxycodone and methadone belong.
The problem isn't limited to the northern New England — Utah, Kentucky and Washington, for example, had similar methadone death rates — and experts say there is nothing particular to the Northeast that is contributing to the trend.
"We are simply at a point in time where in New England and the Eastern Seaboard, methadone is the drug with 'street cred' right now, whereas methamphetamine leads the pack elsewhere," said Dr. Thomas Andrew, New Hampshire's medical examiner.
Though methadone does not itself produce a high, it is often combined with other drugs in hopes of creating one. But for someone who has a low tolerance, even low doses can be dangerous. Methadone is particularly hazardous because of the slow way in which it is metabolized.
"It takes a while for its action to be perceived by the patient, and in this age of instant gratification — 'Hey, I still hurt' — they grab a second one or even a third one, and by the time everything kicks in, they wake up dead," Andrew said.
The medical examiner is pushing for electronic prescription monitoring to prevent people from getting multiple methadone prescriptions from different doctors and pharmacies.
About 30 states have such programs, including Maine and Vermont, but New Hampshire rejected the idea three times recently. Opponents consider it an invasion of privacy and an invitation for police fishing expeditions.
In Laconia, the police chief's task force is focusing on educating schoolchildren and other members of the public about methadone, displaying a big "Eight Is Enough" banner with pictures of some of the victims. No one has died of a methadone overdose in the city since DeLucca in October.
"I think a lot of people are now afraid to use it," Moyer said. "That's what I'm hoping, anyway. Or certainly they'll think twice about taking too much, if any at all."
At the time of his death, DeLucca was working two jobs and studying to get his high school equivalency degree in hopes of joining the National Guard.
Gail DeLucca said she would like to see his picture displayed at the convenience stores where young people buy beer before heading out to party. The message: "Think about this before you decide what you're going to do tonight, before you make your bad decision."
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