ORLANDO, Fla. -- Jonathan Lucas Levine should be celebrating his 21st birthday this month. Probably he would be in college, studying to be a math professor or perhaps a psychologist. And surely he would have plenty of friends. The way other kids used to follow him around, his mom dubbed him The Pied Piper.
Instead, Donna Levine sits in her Orlando, Fla., apartment surrounded by photos of her only child and tries not to cry again. Three years ago this month, at 18, Jonathan died of a drug overdose.
Among the mix of chemicals in his system was methadone. It was, the medical examiner ruled, what turned the combination from risky to lethal. "Kids take these pills from their parents' medicine cabinet, and they have no idea what they're getting into," Donna Levine said.
Levine is launching a mission in her son's memory to educate parents and their children about those dangers. She calls her fledgling nonprofit organization Mad Over Methadone, or MOM.
While most people know methadone as a treatment for addiction to heroin, in recent years the drug has become an increasingly popular, if controversial, choice to treat severe pain. "Most people are naive. They have the idea that if something is prescribed, it's safe," said Monte Drenner, an Orlando mental-health therapist and certified addiction professional who supports Levine's efforts.
But according to a report this past summer by the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, methadone ranked as the state's third leading cause of drug deaths last year behind Oxycodone and Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Valium.
This comes despite a public health advisory issued by the federal Food and Drug Administration in late 2006: "Methadone use for pain control may result in death and life-threatening changes in breathing and heart beat," it said. The FDA further noted that prescribing methadone for pain is a "complex" issue because of potentially fatal interactions with other drugs and because methadone stays in the body for several days.
Methadone also is readily available, relatively cheap and legal, at least when used as prescribed, making it a more attractive option to abusers than heroin or cocaine.
Dr. Stacy Seikel, medical director at The Center for Drug-Free Living in Central Florida, said the drug has a legitimate and successful use in treating addiction to heroin and Oxycodone. But Seikel said she never prescribes it to anyone taking benzodiazepines, a class of drugs used for anxiety, insomnia, seizures and muscle spasms.
"It's very powerful, particularly in people who haven't built up any tolerance," she said. "And when you combine it with something like Xanax or Ativan, you basically just stop breathing."
The primary source of the problem, said Seikel, an addictions specialist, is methadone that is prescribed by "pill mill" doctor offices frequented by drug-seeking patients. Those prescriptions too often end up being sold by the patient for a profit.
That's what happened in Jonathan's case.
On Sept. 20, 2007, while stopping to visit a friend in Altamonte Springs, Fla., he complained of excruciating pain in his sinuses and face -- the result of a surgery that had left him with an implanted metal plate and a pair of titanium screws.
The friend's mother, Donna Levine said, sold Jonathan a pair of methadone pills. He took one, but he already had taken a trio of other drugs prescribed by his doctors for pain and mood stabilization.
Later, he would call his mom to say he was too tired to come home and was spending the night with a friend. By morning, he was dead.
"The last thing I told him is that I loved him," Levine said.