Pubdate: Sat, 10 Jun 2000
Source: Bangor Daily News (ME)
Copyright: 2000, Bangor Daily News Inc.
Author: Jeff Tuttle


BANGOR - State and federal drug investigators visited several pharmacies in 
eastern Maine this week in an effort to combat recent trends in 
prescription narcotics fraud and abuse, officials said.

This week's action, dubbed an "intelligence mission" by state drug 
officials, centered on pharmacies in Penobscot and Washington counties, 
where reports of opiate misuse and diversion have sparked concern among law 
enforcement officials including the drug diversion team of the federal Drug 
Enforcement Administration.

"We're looking to identify any potential problems in the world of 
prescription drugs," said Peter A. Arno, supervisor at the Maine Drug 
Enforcement Agency in Bangor, describing the purpose of this week's random 
visits. "And everybody recognizes there's a problem."

One major problem - at least in the past two years - appears to be the 
diversion of OxyContin, a legal narcotic used mainly by cancer patients for 
pain relief. The powerful codeine-based drug, once available only by 
prescription, has since made its appearance on the street where it can sell 
for $10 to $80 a tablet depending on the dosage.

Recreational use of the drug, and of other opiates such as Dilaudid and 
Percocet, sparked this week's review of pharmacy narcotics records and 
marked an initial administrative step in the effort to curb the problem, 
which prosecutors say has produced a growing number of addicts in the state 
and has led to increased crime and violence.

"This is just one step in a broad investigation," said U.S. Attorney Jay 
McCloskey, who stressed that investigators did not target specific 
pharmacies based on any suspicion of wrongdoing. "One thing we've been 
doing is asking for cooperation from pharmacists."

Lubec Apothecary owner Donald DeGolyer was one of the Washington County 
pharmacists visited this week.

"They mainly wanted some feedback about what we thought were the problems," 
said DeGoyler, who added that the team of three investigators did make a 
cursory review of his narcotics records. "I think they had some names and 
were just looking to see if any popped out."

Similar actions will continue in Penobscot County and begin in Hancock 
County in coming weeks, Arno said.

Mainers, especially those in Washington County, appear to be no strangers 
to prescription painkillers. The state ranks second per capita in 
consumption of OxyContin, according to federal authorities.

Drug prosecutors link the recent painkiller epidemic to an increase in 
heroin use in eastern Maine, speculating that addicts are turning to the 
deadly drug as an alternative to the relatively expensive prescription 
painkillers found on the black market.

"There was a built-in market of people who just loved narcotics," said 
Maine Drug Task Force attorney Matt Erickson, who noted that an addict 
could buy two bags of heroin for the cost of one medium-dosage OxyContin.

Erickson also noted the rise in cases of people acquiring OxyContin by 
filling multiple prescriptions from different doctors and selling the drug, 
which has heroinlike effects, for a healthy profit.

While abuse of the painkillers is on the rise statewide, Maine's 
easternmost county has attracted the most attention. In 1999, Medicaid paid 
$321.84 per narcotic user in Washington County - the highest average in the 
state and nearly double the statewide average.

"Is there a problem [in Washington County]?" DeGolyer said. "Yes, there's a 
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