Pubdate: Mon, 8 Jan 2001
Source: Time Magazine (US)
Copyright: 2001 Time Inc
Contact:  Time Magazine Letters, Time & Life Bldg., Rockefeller Center, NY, 
NY 10020
Fax: (212) 522-8949
Author: Timothy Roche
Bookmark: (Oxycontin)


OxyContin Is A Leading Treatment For Chronic Pain, But Officials Fear
It May Succeed Crack Cocaine On The Street

For a woman dying of cancer, Terry Sanborn didn't seem to suffer. She
and her unemployed husband Stephen lived on Medicaid and $512 a month
in Social Security in a quiet blue-collar cul-de-sac in tiny Bangor,
Maine. But they managed to pay $78,000 in cash for that roomy house at
the bottom of Hershey Avenue, with a swing set in the backyard. They
forked over an additional $17,000 for a Ford Econoline van. Not until
drug agents raided the place did neighbors know how they were able to
afford it all.

The Sanborns were accused of dealing OxyContin, the morphine-like drug
prescribed for Terry's pain. In any given week, her husband reportedly
told investigators, the couple supplemented their Social Security by
selling drug addicts $8,000 worth of the tiny white tablets that are
chewed or smashed to remove the time-release coating, then snorted or
injected, generating a high as intoxicating as that of heroin. So
popular and addictive is OxyContin these days that it has stirred up a
blizzard of a crime wave through the towns of Calais and Bangor, say
drug counselors and police investigators. People are using bogus
prescriptions to obtain the drug, or they are smuggling the pills
across the nearby Canadian border. "Three months ago, we had needles
show up outside the middle school," says local drug counselor Carrie

Not just in rural Maine: OxyContin is quietly becoming a dangerously
popular drug in other pockets of the nation. In the New Orleans suburb of
St. Bernard Parish, police say OxyContin abuse is an "epidemic." Officers
are making as many arrests for the "killers," as it is known there, as for
crack cocaine. The town has had five documented overdoses, but police
captain John Doran believes the number may be higher. "We're a suburb, so
you see a lot of middle-class families--folks who'd never dream of taking a
needleful of heroin," he says. The same is true in Pulaski, Va. (pop.
10,000), where OxyContin has overtaken cocaine and marijuana. Property
crime is up 50%, says police chief Eric Montgomery. Four overdoses have
been confirmed so far by police, who suspect more than have been reported.
More alarming, says U.S. Attorney Bob Crouch, is a recent survey of
students in southwestern Virginia indicating that 20% of high school kids
and 10% of middle school kids know about OxyContin and how to obtain it.

With abuse of OxyContin on the rise, police in at least three states
are reporting a record number of pharmacies being broken into. The
homes of people with legitimate OxyContin prescriptions are being
robbed in invasions targeting the pills. These patients are often
tracked down by relatives who know what is inside their medicine
chests or by their small-town neighbors who hear small-town talk about
their prescriptions. Thieves are even accosting customers in drugstore
parking lots, on a hunch that they might be carrying the sought-after
drug, say Bangor authorities. OxyContin rings get prescriptions from
sloppy or questionable doctors and use the usual means of forging
them, either by photocopying the form or by using a pen to change a
prescription for 10 tablets, for example, to 100. The truly inventive
ones ask their doctors for another drug, then take the prescription
form home, soak the ink off with chemicals and write themselves a new

Not everyone agrees that OxyContin is problematic. Dr. David Haddox,
senior medical director for Purdue Pharma, the drug's manufacturer,
insists doctors are not overprescribing. But the company has a lot to
lose if the controversy lingers and doctors take their patients off
it. Last April the Wall Street Journal reported that OxyContin sales
increased 95% in one year, generating $600 million in sales for Purdue
Pharma. Indeed, the drug, introduced in 1995, has been hailed as a
miracle; it eases chronic pain because its dissolvable coating allows
a measured dose of the opiate oxycodone to be released into the
bloodstream (see Personal Time: Your Health). However, abusers quickly
found that by smashing the pills, they can get all the drug's potency
in a rush of euphoria.

Facing pressure from prosecutors, investigators and drug counselors,
OxyContin's manufacturer has begun working with doctors to minimize
forged prescriptions. In Maine the problems have caused a quandary for
doctors. In 1999 the legislature passed new medical rules requiring
doctors to treat pain more aggressively. Now Maine is the second
largest consumer of OxyContin among all the states, and had 35 deaths
from overdoses last year. "We haven't had a drug problem like this in
the high schools in Maine until now," says U.S. Attorney Jay
McCloskey, who is waging a war against the doctors who so readily
write OxyContin prescriptions. "We've had people tell us if a doctor
had just asked them to roll up their sleeve for a blood-pressure test,
they would have seen the track marks." 
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