Seven hundred and sixty-seven patients applying to enter public methadone programmes in the western suburbs of Sydney underwent assessment in the Drug and Alcohol Unit at Westmead Hospital between 1986 and 1988. These patients had long histories of illicit drug use and most were involved in crime, prostitution and a drug subculture. Many abused multiple drugs, and almost all had been exposed to hepatitis B virus. However, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) seropositivity rate was low. Methadone programmes, at least in Sydney's western suburbs, attract a very disadvantaged population for whom rehabilitation is likely to be a difficult, long-term process.