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Killer pills

For 19-year-old Kyle Lewis, taking methadone with friends was "no big deal."

That was before his parents found him dead in his bedroom after an evening with friends.

"I knew it was an overdose as soon as I found out he was dead," said Lewis' mother, 42-year-old Pam Cooper. "The coroner told us it was methadone."

Lewis consumed five 10-milligram pills before walking the few blocks back to his west Medford home on July 8, 2005. His best friend, who swallowed only four pills, told Cooper the two took the prescription painkiller "for fun."

"For a long time, when people asked me how he died, I felt kind of embarrassed," said Cooper, who lives in Central Point.

But Lewis' death is far from unique. Methadone claimed 13 other lives in Jackson County during 2005 and cut an even wider swath last year, killing 19 people. Despite all the publicity about the dangers of methamphetamine, methadone outpaces every other legal and illegal drug as the most common cause of overdoses, according to the Jackson County Medical Examiner's Office.

"Methadone is bad," said Deputy Medical Examiner Jennifer Gall. "If I'm taking a death report ... and I hear there's methadone in the house, I just assume it's an accidental overdose."

Of the 19 methadone overdose deaths, three involved other substances, too, including alcohol and the prescription painkillers oxycodone and morphine.

Methadone has long been used to treat dependence on opiates, particularly heroin, but it's also an effective painkiller in its own right. Oregon physicians have prescribed increasing amounts of methadone since the state's government-funded health plan gave it the stamp of approval, said Jim Shames, a physician employed by Jackson County Health and Human Services.

"Methadone rightly has been considered a very good option for chronic pain," Shames said. "It's powerful, it lasts a long time and it's cheap."

Addiction to prescription painkillers like methadone, however, is on the rise, experts say. These drugs rank second only to marijuana as the country's most commonly abused drugs, according to statements released earlier this year by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

An alarming number of teens like Lewis are turning to recreational use of prescription drugs. Those age 12 to 17 constituted one-third of all new abusers of prescription drugs in 2005, according to statistics compiled by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The majority of those teens said they received the drugs from a friend or relative. One-third of teens, the White House office reported, believe prescription drugs are much safer than illegal drugs because they're prescribed by a doctor.

Cooper recalled her son once chewed up a mouthful of Vicodin "like it was candy." About a year later, the teen was hospitalized for overdosing on a cocktail of Vicodin and other painkillers. Less than a year later, he was dead.

Recreational users of methadone often underestimate the drug's potency, said Steve Brummett, manager of the county's methadone clinic. Methadone's effects aren't felt for about 30 minutes, and the lag time often spurs illicit users to take more, Brummett said.

Ingesting methadone with other drugs or alcohol is too often lethal, he added. "You really need to be cautious when using methadone," he cautioned.

The county's methadone clinic, which dispenses the drug to recovering heroin addicts, takes precautions to keep its supply in the right hands, Brummett said. Doses come only in liquid form, and patients must return every container. Clients must submit to blood and urine screening to ensure they have the proper amount of methadone in their system.

Doctors, by contrast, may prescribe methadone in pill form or diskettes in quantities sufficient to last for three months, he said.

Brummett said physicians "don't monitor patients the way we do" at the methadone clinic.

Cooper said large quantities of methadone beg to be abused. Since her son's death, she's heard of teens breaking into houses to steal pills. Filching a few from friends or relatives would be a lot more obvious if there were only 10 pills in a bottle instead of nearly 100, she said.

"People would be less apt to take them from their parents ... or whoever ... if the quantity was way less," Cooper said.

"I'm surprised and real shocked at how out of hand it has gotten."

E-mail: slemon@mailtribune.com.

Pam Cooper of Medford holds a picture of her son, Kyle Lewis, who died of an overdose of methadone in July 2005. Cooper has made a shrine for her son in her home. - Jim Craven