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How we did it

The Sunday Gazette-Mail?s investigation of nationwide methadone deaths was prompted by an obscure entry in a West Virginia vital statistics report.

Accidental poisoning deaths in the state had shot up dramatically in five years, reporter Scott Finn noticed. He thought it might be toddlers ingesting cleaning supplies, or maybe people overdosing on OxyContin. He called the medical examiner?s office to check. No, he was told. The main culprit was a drug called methadone.

Reporter Tara Tuckwiller had been reporting on methadone clinics ? treatment centers that sell daily doses of legal methadone to calm addicts? cravings for illegal drugs ? since they began to crop up in West Virginia in 2001.

For more than six months, Tuckwiller and Finn investigated why so many people are dying after taking methadone. They first examined whether the treatment clinics were the source of the methadone involved in the deaths.

But they discovered another cause ? methadone being prescribed to treat pain ? after interviewing medical examiners, epidemiologists and other experts across the nation.

Other states were experiencing similar increases in methadone overdoses, they found.

A tip from a state health official led them to the National Center for Health Statistics, which collects data from death certificates across the country. The Center ran an analysis of this data and provided it to the Sunday Gazette-Mail for this report.

Officially, the ?cause of death? in each of these cases is poisoning, not any specific drug. Medical examiners say methadone contributes to the poisoning death. Sometimes, more than one drug is listed as contributing to death.

Critics say medical examiners are too quick to blame methadone for deaths that could have been caused by other drugs. They also point out that the majority of overdose deaths involving methadone also include other drugs.

 


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