It is a potent drug, after all.

With various provisions of the federal Affordable Health Care Act sure to dominate state legislatures when their sessions get going at the beginning of the year, other health-related issues will inevitably get pushed down the totem pole, at least in the short run. An overdue conversation between two Minnesota House health-care committees on Thursday is a sign, however, that a critical problem currently staring the state in the face will soon be taken up and debated among legislators.

    Methadone, a potent but legal drug used primarily to treat addiction to hard-core illegal drugs such as heroin, has come under fire recently. High-profile incidents, like one involving a woman who was allegedly misusing the drug and now stands accused of killing two Carlton County workers with the vehicle she was driving, have called attention to it. An in-depth investigation and subsequent multiple-story report published in the Duluth News Tribune also exposed a myriad of problems associated with the drug and the clinics that dispense it. The state is in the process of shutting down the methadone clinic in Duluth for multiple rule violations, which was underway long before the exposé was published.

    This report is not for the faint of heart, as some alarming statistics indicate: use of methadone in Minnesota has grown 60 percent since 207; the treatment success rate (weaning off the drug) in the state is only 5 percent; nearly 400 deaths connected to the drug were reported in the last 10 years, a jump of 1,325 percent since 2000 (the nationwide increase was 623 percent); about 5,000 people get methadone treatments in Minnesota each year, around half them funded by the state, with an $8.5 million price tag; and investigators have cited more than 250 violations at the state's nine outpatient methadone clinics in the last five years. One more thing: 54 percent of U.S. methadone clinics for-profit, including the majority in Minnesota, are for profit, meaning their bottom line all has to do with money.

    Patients are lining up in droves to get their take-home doses from the clinics, which are presumably available after certain steps are followed according to federal guidelines. In reality, though, many of these doses end up in the hands of drug dealers, who can fetch somewhere around $3,500 for a 30-day supply. Some patients misuse the drug themselves by injecting, rather than swallowing it.

    A lot of this is happening because the clinics are run haphazardly and with little state supervision over how they dispense the drugs and deal with patients. It's typical for big corporations that own numerous clinics across the country to understaff them, neglect to monitor patients adequately and implement even the simplest of controls, just to make a bigger buck. The state, on the other hand, has lagged in conducting proper and timely inspections as well as following through on any violations. The fines, when imposed, have amounted to a gentle wrist tapping.

    It's time for legislators to step in and impose stricter regulations on this controversial drug therapy. With experts from all sides of the spectrum differing in medical opinions, they may have to tread carefully. Will this solve all the problems associated with methadone? Hardly. It's a drug and as such, will be abused and misused. But, as the Duluth News Tribune showed, the current system is in shambles and stronger controls are needed to lessen the problem.