Pubdate: Wed, 30 Jan 2002
Source: Portland Press Herald (ME)
Copyright: 2002 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Author: David Hench


A state panel studying OxyContin abuse in Maine says the state should 
increase prevention efforts, expand treatment opportunities and make it 
harder for people to obtain the prescription painkiller illegally.

The Substance Abuse Services Commission, which advises state leaders on 
substance abuse policy, will announce the findings of a six-month study at 
a State House press conference today. They hope the proposals will help 
address an epidemic of drug use that has led to robberies, assaults, 
burglary, accidental deaths and even economic development problems in 
Washington County. Hundreds of people statewide have become addicted to the 
powerful narcotic.

"OxyContin is a dragon we are going to have to deal with," said Margaret 
Jones, commission chairwoman and director of prevention services for the 
substance abuse treatment organization Day One. "It's highly addictive, and 
we're beginning to see young people going from OxyContin to heroin in a 
very short period of time."

OxyContin is the brand name of a powerful time-release painkiller that can 
be obtained legitimately with a doctor's prescription. Recreational users 
and those addicted to opiates such as heroin can remove the medicine's 
time-release buffer, then inject or snort it for a surge of euphoria and to 
stave off withdrawal symptoms.

Jones said the commission's report deals specifically with the drug's misuse.

"I don't condemn this drug. The appropriate use of this has been a real 
lifesaver," she said. "What we have to be aware of is how we prevent it 
from getting into the wrong hands."

Maine's problem with OxyContin abuse, like that in some other rural states, 
has drawn national attention. The problem first became acute in eastern 
Maine about three years ago when Washington County treatment workers and 
police were confronting a growing number of people addicted to the 
painkillers who were resorting to crime to satisfy the habit.

The number of people being treated for addiction to prescription 
painkillers and other opiates grew rapidly in Maine from 1995 to 2001. So 
did the number of crimes related to the problem, which is one reason the 
commission did the in-depth study.

In addition, the state Medical Examiner's Office reported that of 54 
accidental overdose deaths in 2000, 10 of the victims had oxycodone, the 
active ingredient in OxyContin, in their systems.

"It's a very big deal primarily because of the growth of the problem and 
because most of the state, with the exception of southern Maine, has not 
really had any experience at all with opiate addiction and it really took a 
lot of people by surprise," said Kimberly Johnson, director of the state's 
Office of Substance Abuse.

The commission, which is comprised of treatment professionals and 
legislators, conducted focus groups with recovering addicts, family 
members, police chiefs and drug agents.

The commission found that young people typically get access to the drug 
initially through friends whose parents have it. They fail to recognize the 
drug's addictive qualities and quickly succumb to more frequent use.

The report recommends several strategies for combatting the problem, its 
authors say.

Educators, parents and others need to include the drug in prevention 
efforts. The state needs to focus additional resources on law enforcement 
efforts to fight diversion of prescription drugs. And the Office of 
Substance Abuse needs to continue studying the problem closely, including 
incorporating OxyContin use in the surveys it gives to students.

Another recommendation is a call for expanding treatment programs, which 
would be costly.

"When you make up your mind you're going to go into treatment, you need to 
be able to do it then, because your mind changes really quick when you're 
in withdrawal," Johnson said. "If you're on the waiting list a week or two 
or for one or two months, by the time you're off the waiting list you've 
gone back to using."

Also, if people have to drive two hours to attend treatment, which has been 
the case in eastern parts of the state, they are likely to abandon the 
program, she said.

The report also recommends establishing an electronic prescription- 
monitoring system so pharmacists can confirm a patient's prescription. One 
tactic the drug's abusers will use is to alter a prescription, copy it for 
use at multiple pharmacies, or fabricate a prescription on a stolen form.

An electronic prescription system, which has been used effectively in other 
states, could allow doctors to submit prescriptions electronically, Jones 
said. Such a system was proposed in the Legislature last year, but the bill 
was defeated after opponents raised concerns about medical privacy. The 
bill has been resubmitted this year.

Johnson suspects legislators are becoming increasingly receptive to 
legislation aimed at curbing the drug's abuse.

"My sense is, recently there has been a real concern and a growing 
knowledge among the legislators that substance abuse, whether opiates or 
alcohol or marijuana, is linked to all the other social or criminal issues 
they deal with," Johnson said.
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