HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html 'Oxys' Become New Drug Of Choice in S.W. Virginia
Pubdate: Wed, 16 Aug 2000
Source: Roanoke Times (VA)
Copyright: 2000 Roanoke Times
Contact:  201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, Va. 24010
Author: Andrew Donohue


'It's The Worst Drug Problem We've Seen In This Community,' Prosecutor

Tazewell County's prosecutor has charged more than 150 people in the
last year with felonies associated with the addictive painkiller.

A prescription painkiller known as "the poor man's heroin" is becoming
the street drug of choice in the New River Valley and rural areas west
of Roanoke, spawning a new headache for police and a new addiction for
clinics to treat.

Prescribed for chronic pain, OxyContin began surfacing as a street
drug about three years ago and its popularity has risen quickly.

In Southwest Virginia, the problem escalates as one goes west, said
Lt. Larry Lehman of the state police.

Tazewell County Commonwealth's Attorney Dennis Lee called abuse of
OxyContin an epidemic.

"It's the worst drug problem we've seen in this community," he

Lee's office has charged more than 150 people in the last year with
felonies associated with OxyContin, either for possession,
distribution or other crimes like forgery or burglary, he estimates.

The flood of cases began 1 1/2 years ago and includes 10 armed
robberies of drugstores. In each case, Lee said, the robbers demanded
OxyContin and showed little interest in money.

Many users are between the ages of 16 and 25 and most don't realize
how addictive the prescription drug can be, Lee said.

The string of robberies prompted some drugstores in Tazewell County to
stop carrying OxyContin. To deter would-be robbers, the stores are
also posting signs stating that they don't carry the drug.

Andy Anderson, a narcotics detective with the Pulaski Police
Department, estimated that 90 percent of the people in Pulaski who
admit to such crimes as breaking and entering, shoplifting, forgery or
stealing checks said they committed the crimes to get money to finance
their OxyContin addiction.

Capt. Tony Webb of the Pulaski County Sheriff's office reported
similar numbers. And the drug is gaining popularity with street users
in Montgomery County, according to officers with the Montgomery County
Drug Task Force.

Although it's prescribed as a pill, OxyContin is usually crushed and
snorted or boiled down and injected intravenously by street users for
a quicker high. It is opioid-based, giving a high close to that of

Authorities say they do not know why it has infiltrated this

"We really don't have a lot of answers," Pulaski Police Chief Herb
Cooley said. "We know that this prescription drug is involved in a
large majority of our crimes. The street drug of choice on our street
is OxyContin."

Oxys And o.c.'s

Purdue Pharma L.P. of Norwalk, Conn., introduced OxyContin in 1996.
It's prescribed often as a painkiller to cancer patients and people
recovering from surgery.

Robin Hagen, executive director of public affairs at Purdue Pharma,
identified Virginia, Maine and Cincinnati as hot spots for the drug's
black market abuse.

Some areas of the country prefer certain drugs, and there's no rhyme
or reason to it, said Katherine Daniels, Drug Enforcement
Administration diversion program manager for Virginia, West Virginia,
Maryland and Washington, D.C.

OxyContin is more accessible and viewed by users as safer than street
drugs, which can often be mixed with "junk" additives. Because it's a
prescription drug, addicts believe OxyContin to be safer.

Oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin, is found in other
prescription painkillers including Percocet, Percodan and Tylox, but
in a much lower concentration.

OxyContin, known on the street as "oxys" or "o.c.'s," was designed as
a 12-hour painkiller. While most painkillers need to be taken every
three to four hours, OxyContin only needs to be taken twice a day,
Hagen said.

It is this "sustained release" that street users eliminate when
crushing or boiling the drug, getting all of the drug at once and
experiencing an intense, euphoric high.

The drug is also very concealable, said State Police Lt. C.D.

It is available in dosages of 20, 40 and 80 milligrams. Once on the
street, one pill sells for $1 per milligram, meaning an 80 milligram
pill will sell for $80, according to the New River Valley Regional
Drug Task Force.

Fighting Pill Mills

The primary channel for OxyContin to the street is through what is
called "doctor shopping."

Drug users will go from doctor to doctor with concocted complaints to
get several different prescriptions. Often, addicts or dealers will
forge prescriptions to get OxyContin.

Also, some doctors or pharmacists run "pill mills," selling the drugs
for their own profit, said 1st Sgt. Rod Bess of the Virginia State

In the past decade, he said state police have arrested an average of
one health care professional a week in Virginia for diverting
prescription drugs.

State and federal agencies, including the FBI and DEA, formed a task
force in 1997 to investigate cases of diverted drugs and health
insurance fraud in Southwest Virginia. Several doctors in Southwest
Virginia were the targets of the task force, Bess said.

In March, the task force's efforts netted the sentencing of Dr. Denny
Ray Lambert to 57 months in prison for illegally distributing
prescription drugs.

Lambert, a practicing psychiatrist in Tennessee for a number of years,
was crossing state lines to write OxyContin, Ritalin and Dilaudid
prescriptions, said Randy Ramseyer, an assistant U.S. attorney for the
Western district.

"He was kind of working out of his car," Ramseyer said. Lambert would
write a prescription for a certain amount of pills, a user or dealer
would fill the prescription and then the two sides would divide the
pills between them, the attorney said.

Other task force investigations are ongoing.

In the last 18 months, OxyContin overdose cases have significantly
increased at Carilion St. Albans in Radford, prompting Carilion to
take a deeper look into the addiction.

A new Carilion team will begin this month looking deeper into
treatments and studies.

The plague of addiction is much greater in the New River Valley than
in Roanoke, said Rick Seidel, director of clinical programs. Clinics
in Richmond and Peterson haven't even heard of OxyContin, said St.
Albans administrator Janet Crawford.

The abuse worries officials at Purdue Pharma, who believe the drug's
success with patients outweighs the street abuses.

"Our main concern is how this issue will affect patients who rely on
OxyContin to manage their pain," Hagen said. A great disservice would
be done if, because of abusers of the drug, it became difficult for
legitimate patients to access the drug, he added.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake