Objectives: Buprenorphine at high dosage became available in France in 1996, as a substitution treatment for heroin addicts. Since this date, numerous deaths were attributed to this drug. This paper reports a new series of 13 fatalities involving buprenorphine observed at the Institute of Legal Medicine of Strasbourg, between August 2000 to October 2001.
Design and methods: During the mentioned period, about 800 forensic cases were screened at the laboratory. Buprenorphine and its primary metabolite norbuprenophine were assayed in postmortem specimens by HPLC/MS. From these 13 subjects, 11 were male. Blood levels ranged from 0.3 to 7.7 ng/mL (mean 3.5 ng/mL) and 0.3 to 16.2 ng/mL (mean 2.9 ng/mL) for buprenorphine and norbuprenorphine, respectively. The mean values appear to be within the therapeutic range.
Conclusions: IV injection of crushed tablets, a concomitant intake of psychotropics (especially benzodiazepines and neuroleptics) and the high dosage of the buprenorphine formulation available in France appear as the major risk factors for such fatalities.