Drug Busts Net Powerful Prescription Painkiller. Part 1

by on Jul.21, 2011, under Prescription Drug

A prescription painkiller is fast becoming the focus of police drug busts in the Midwest. Addicts are crushing it, swallowing it, injecting it and even snorting it like cocaine.

It’s called OxyContin — a powerful but potentially addictive drug. While it brings relief from severe and intractable pain to many thousands of patients, illegal use of it has suddenly become an epidemic in depressed parts of Maine, Appalachia and the rural Midwest.

The police chief of Gilbert, West Virginia, said it is “the worst drug” his department has ever encountered, and its use has surpassed that of marijuana. The largest drug bust in Kentucky history, in early February of this year, was for OxyContin trafficking and abuse. An eight-month investigation resulted in 207 arrests in four counties, from upper-level dealers down to street dealers and abusers. The U.S. District Attorney for Maine says illegal traffic in OxyContin is the most significant drug threat in his state. A drug task force in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, which includes the city of Johnstown, reported that some 30 percent of its drug arrests were for illegal sale of OxyContin.

The attorneys general of those states and of Indiana, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia and Tennessee met recently with the manufacturer of the drug, Purdue Pharma of Stamford, Connecticut, to discuss ways to stem its illegal diversion.

Milton Friedman, vice president of the company, said Purdue Pharma is taking steps to keep the drug in the right hands. The company announced last week that it was giving the Appalachian Pain Foundation in Huntington, WV, $25,000 for research into pain management and addiction. The company’s medical director, J. David Haddox, M.D., is on the road constantly, speaking to doctors’ and pharmacists’ groups about how to tell the difference between patients who need pain relief and potential abusers.

The company has a lot to protect. Since OxyContin was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1996, sales of the drug have grown so rapidly they account for 80 percent of the company’s income and amount to more than $600,000 a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Known as “oxy” or “OC” on the street, it has been dubbed “the heroin of the Middle West.” A major reason for its amazingly fast spread is that it is so easily diverted into the illegal markets. Prescriptions are forged, or altered, such as by changing a prescription for 10 pills into one for 100. Patients exaggerate their symptoms to persuade doctors to prescribe the drug. Some shop around to get prescriptions online from several doctors.

A few doctors have been accused of knowingly writing prescriptions for addicts or dealers. One physician in Maine was found to be prescribing far more OxyContin than his patients’ diagnoses justified, and the state medical board stripped him of his authority to write prescriptions.

Oxycodone hydrochloride, OxyContin’s active ingredient, is a synthetic chemical that is a close chemical relative of codeine, morphine and heroin. Its effects are like theirs–relief of pain, which is what doctors prescribe it for, and euphoria, which is what its illegal users seek, as well as stopping the pains of withdrawal for those who have become addicted.

Oxycodone was already in several pain-relieving medications, including Percocet and Percodan. OxyContin tablets are formulated to release it gradually, over periods of up to 12 hours, so they can deliver a stronger total dose. They come in strengths ranging from 10 to 160 milligrams of oxycodone, compared with 5 mg for Percocet and 2.5 for Percodan.

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