Pubdate: Fri, 04 Jul 2003
Source: Sarasota Herald-Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2003 Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Author: L.W. Kong


SARASOTA -- Local drug-prevention programs are expanding their focus beyond 
alcohol and marijuana this fall to combat the rising trend of prescription 
drug abuse.

"Drug abuse comes in fads, and right now any prescription use is popular," 
said Barbara Kochmit, prevention director at the Sarasota Coalition on 
Substance Abuse.

A prescription painkiller, OxyContin, has been singled out as a threat.

According to a survey released in March, a higher percentage of middle and 
high school students in Sarasota have tried OxyContin than in any other 
county in Florida.

The 2002 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey reports that 5.9 percent of 
students in grades six to 12 in Sarasota County say they have experimented 
with the drug, compared with a 2.5 percent state average. Charlotte County 
ranked third in students who have used the drug in the last 30 days, behind 
Sarasota and Holmes counties.

Prevention specialists and law enforcement officials are focusing on 
OxyContin and other prescription drugs such as Adderall and Vicodin in 
presentations to parents and students.

OxyContin is the "up-and-coming drug," said Detective Chris Shaw of the 
Sarasota Sheriff's Department. "A few years back it was ecstasy, but both 
heroin and pills have filtered down."

In 2002, OxyContin was added as a new category in the survey administered 
to about 1,000 students in Sarasota, Charlotte, and Manatee counties, and 
to more than 60,000 students statewide. The survey asks students grades 6 
to 12 questions about their alcohol, tobacco, and drug use.

Sgt. David Zachos, the school resource officer who monitors all of South 
County, attributes the high rate of prescription drug abuse throughout the 
county to a number of factors, including the prevalence of prescription 
drugs, the affluence of the local population, and the large number of 
residents receiving prescription drugs in Sarasota.

He adds, "There are just more prescriptions being written now, compared to 
10 years ago."

"OxyContin and prescription drugs have taken over," said Detective Rich 
Starowesky of the Sarasota County Sheriff's Department, who monitors Venice 
High School. "We have a zero tolerance policy toward these drugs."

OxyContin, an opioid agonist with effects similar to morphine, was 
introduced six years ago by Purdue Pharma LP. It is commonly prescribed to 
alleviate moderate to severe pain in patients suffering from cancer or 
spinal injury.

As sales have increased to $1.5 billion annually, OxyContin has gained 
notoriety as the "poor man's heroin." On the streets the drug is also known 
as "hillbilly heroin," "Oxy," and "Oxycotton."

"OxyContin became hot because it gave you a euphoria that lasted for 
hours," said Edwin Hering, a former user who lives in North Port. Hering, 
now 25, started using less potent painkillers like Vicodin before 
progressing to OxyContin two years ago: "Because OxyContin is synthetic it 
is so addicting. Within three days of using it you're hooked."

Hering recalls that the majority of people he bought from were high school 
students. "A lot of times you wouldn't be able to hook up with anything 
because these kids were still in school."

OxyContin is especially dangerous when it is mixed with alcohol and other 
drugs, a cocktail that has often proved fatal. The Drug Enforcement 
Administration has said OxyContin may have contributed to 464 deaths 
nationwide in the past two years. The drug has been responsible for a 
number of deaths in the county. In 2001 two men died of an OxyContin 
overdose at Oscar Scherer State Park in Osprey.

OxyContin abusers often grind the tablets into powder to disable the 
time-release component before snorting or injecting the drug. This produces 
an immediate high that is particularly dangerous as users overdose because 
they are unprepared for the purity of the drug. One 80mg tablet of 
OxyContin, $35-50 on the street, produces a high equivalent to or more 
potent than that from a bag of heroin, according to Hering.

This February a Sarasota doctor, Bach McComb, was charged with trafficking 
in OxyContin and other painkillers from his downtown office. The Florida 
Department of Health suspended McComb's license on April 11, accusing him 
of prescribing more than 32,000 doses of narcotic painkillers. Because of 
such abuses, doctors and pharmacists are increasingly cautious when 
dispensing the drug, according to Detective Shaw.

Because it is highly addictive, even patients who have received legitimate 
prescriptions for OxyContin have found themselves hooked. Cheryl-Lynn 
Montalvan-Velarde, a 38-year-old insurance agent who lives in Sarasota. 
took the drug for a spinal injury. "It did work, but the side effects were 
incredible," she said. "I ended up needing to detox and needed followup 
psychiatric treatment."

Montalvan-Velarde has also had her OxyContin stolen from her. She said her 
son's friends were attracted to her drugs and that one even asked, "Do you 
know what those are worth?"

"Kids are stealing drugs from their parents and grandparents," said Lisa 
Phillips, a prevention specialist at the Sarasota Coalition on Substance Abuse.

Kochmit, prevention director at the Sarasota Coalition on Substance Abuse, 
says some patients are selling their OxyContin prescriptions to supplement 
their income: "Grandma sells her medicine on the street for $50 a pill."

In 2001 during a federal hearing, the head of the Drug Enforcement 
Administration accused OxyContin's maker, Purdue Pharma, of contributing to 
the drug's disproportionate abuse by marketing it as less prone to abuse 
than similar drugs.

That year, the company also launched its own prescription drug prevention 
program called Painfully Obvious, which uses publications and radio ads to 
educate the public on the dangers of prescription drug abuse.

Locally, through Painfully Obvious and other programs, school resource 
officers are working to quash the myth among students that prescriptions 
drugs are safe because they are legal. Charlotte County will disseminate 
Purdue Pharma materials aimed at preventing OxyContin abuse among youths, 
according to the county's director of drug prevention, Amity Chandler.

OxyContin was much easier to obtain in the past, before those in health 
care began to realize the dangers of the drug, he said.

P.J. Brooks, Director of Adolescent Counseling Programs at First Step, a 
rehabilitation clinic in Sarasota, said 75 percent of the youths admitted 
to the program have abused prescription drugs.

"Abuse of prescription medications tends to be more prevalent in affluent 
kids," Brooks said. He said that most kids try OxyContin in party 
situations, warning that "summertime is upon us and you'll see more kids 
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