Pubdate: Thu, 11 Jul 2002
Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2002 The Charlotte Observer
Author: Cleve R. Wootson Jr.


Abuse of the prescription drug OxyContin and its generic versions is on the 
rise in Cabarrus and Rowan counties and has claimed 10 lives in the two 
counties in the past two years.

Five deaths in Cabarrus and five in Rowan have been linked to abuse of 
OxyContin since April 2000, mostly because of overdoses, but sometimes in 
combination with other drugs.

Dealers and abusers can be found in high schools, nursing homes and 
everywhere in between, authorities say.

Local law enforcement officials and pharmacists say they are taking extra 
steps to prevent abuse of the drug. But some worry that being too cautious 
about prescribing and dispensing the drug will keep people in extreme pain 
from getting the medication they need.

OxyContin is a time-release painkiller derived from opium and can be 
addictive. It comes in pills of varying strengths. Abusers have found that 
grinding up the pill and ingesting it leads to a heroin-like high. As time 
goes on, authorities say, more and more people are getting hooked.

"It's probably one of the biggest things we do," said Cabarrus County 
Sheriff Brad Riley.

The extent of the problem

Riley said local authorities have seen an increase in abuse of OxyContin 
and other prescription drugs in the past few years, although he didn't have 
specific numbers. The increase, Riley said, may result partly from the 
increased national security efforts since Sept. 11, which have cut down on 
the amount of illegal drugs imported into the country.

"A lot more domestic drugs are surfacing," he said.

A lot of suspected abusers and dealers of the drug have prescriptions for 
it (which they may obtain illegitimately), so it's difficult to prove they 
aren't legitimate, said Detective Tim Parker with the Cabarrus County 
Sheriff's Office.

OxyContin abuse is widespread in Rowan County as well, said Detective Chad 
Moose, who works for the Sheriff's Office drug unit in that county.

"We'll go to a crime scene and find a white powder," he said. "Usually, in 
the past, it was cocaine, but more and more it's (ground-up) OxyContin."

Moose said many people believe prescription drugs such as OxyContin 
wouldn't be legal if they were as dangerous as illicit drugs such as heroin 
and cocaine -- a potentially deadly misconception.

Crossing the barriers

OxyContin abuse isn't limited to any one identifiable group of people, 
authorities agree. All kinds of people abuse the drug.

"Dealers are usually selling out of a house," Moose said. "We've gotten 
dealers that were everything from elderly people to kids in school. Usually 
they're selling so they can get more pills."

People get the drug in a variety of ways, police say.

Sometimes, a person will steal pills from a family member who is 
legitimately using them to combat chronic pain.

Other people "doctor-shop" -- they go to a series of physicians, getting 
prescriptions for the same drug from each. They may go to an emergency room 
and ask for OxyContin.

"Most times, the drugs that the (emergency room) provides will not be 
enough, but the user will add a zero to the number (of pills on the 
prescription)," Moose said.

Sometimes, a patient with a legitimate prescription will sell some of the 
pills to a drug dealer and decide to simply endure the pain.

"Some people put a higher price on money" than on pain relief, Riley said.

Fighting back

To fight abuse, officers say, they depend on tips from people close to the 
abusers.Moose said concerned family members and friends sometimes let 
authorities know if someone has been taking a lot of pills.

Sometimes, police will get a search warrant for someone who is dealing 
other drugs, and find OxyContin, too, he said.

Some abusers go from one pharmacy to the next, buying the drug with stolen 
or forged prescriptions, Riley said. That means law enforcement agencies 
often must cooperate across county and sometimes state lines.

Although pharmacies should be wary, OxyContin is an essential pain 
management tool, said Hearn Rickard, a pharmacist at Martin's Drug Store on 
the Rowan County side of Kannapolis.

"There are a good many people (who) have chronic pain or have chronic 
problems that need treatment," Rickard said.

Rickard said Martin's is a smaller drug store where the pharmacists know 
most customers: "It's the person that comes in from out of town that we 
worry about."

The store uses several procedures to verify whether a prescription is 
valid, but it's difficult to make certain and usually involves a judgment call.

"We usually call the doctor and make sure that the prescription is 
legitimate. We also ask for proof of identification, like a driver's 
license. Sometimes we just turn the person down if we can't confirm the 

"Those two things are pretty much standard in the pharmacy industry," 
Rickard said. "But it's tough to say that it's airtight."

Moose Pharmacy has stores in Concord, Mount Pleasant and Midland. Co-owner 
and pharmacist Joe Moose said doctors and pharmacists are using advanced 
methods to stop potential prescription drug abusers and dealers.

Some physicians use numbered forms or security blanks when writing 
prescriptions for controlled substances. Others use them for all prescriptions.

By law, when a pharmacist orders pills for controlled substances from a 
wholesale distributor, a copy of the order goes to the Food and Drug 

"Every pill is accounted for," Joe Moose said.

But he said the best defense is for a pharmacist to be wary.

It's hard to check for identification, Joe Moose said, because a person who 
needs a drug as powerful as OxyContin might be in too much pain to come to 
the pharmacy himself. So they send someone else with the prescription, and 
identification doesn't always help determine whether that person is getting 
the prescription filled legitimately.

"You are at a heightened sense that it is a high drug for abuse potential," 
Joe Moose said. "You use your professional judgment on whether the 
prescription looks valid or not."
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