HARTFORD, Vt. (AP) – The recent case of a New Hampshire man charged with illegally providing methadone to three people, one of whom later died of an overdose, points to a worrisome trend: the increasing use of methadone as a street drug.

Richard Soucy, 42, faces three counts of dispensing a narcotic, and is being held on $50,000 bail at a jail in Springfield, Vt. According to a Hartford police affidavit, witnesses say he gave methadone pills and “diskettes” on Dec. 2, 2001, to the three people with whom he was sharing a White River Junction motel room.

Joyce Letendre of Manchester, Soucy’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, was found dead in one of the room’s beds the next morning. An autopsy found that Letendre, 37, had died of “acute methadone intoxication.”

Soucy, formerly of Enfield but more recently of West Stewartstown, N.H., told police that he had his own methadone supply, for which he had a prescription, but that he hadn’t shared the drug. The other two people in the room said he had given methadone to all of them, according to the affidavit.

Soucy has pleaded not guilty; a status conference in the case is scheduled for Dec. 7.

Methadone is widely used to treat addiction to opiates such as heroin because it can block the addicted brain’s cravings without providing wild highs and withdrawal lows. Daily doses taken over months or years can help an addict return to normalcy in family and work.

It is also used for treatment of chronic pain and, increasingly in recent years, as a street drug.

According to the 2003 report of a study group impaneled by the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of “methadone-associated” deaths from 1970 to 2002 was 1,114, but a disproportionate number were in the last few years of that period. There were more such deaths in 2001 than in the years 1990-1999 combined. And total rose sharply again in 2002, to about 200.

The study group found that increasing abuse of methadone may be tied to more frequent use of take-home, oral prescriptions of a drug that formerly was given in liquid form to recovering heroin addicts at clinics, who were required to drink it there.

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