OxyContin - new drug war menace?

Fatal overdoses of a powerful prescription painkiller have been increasing since 1997, and it's no surprise that law enforcement is losing the war on this drug as with all the rest. Known as the "prescription heroin," OxyContin is a highly euphoric and addictive narcotic. The pill's time-release coating is designed to dispense the active ingredient, opioid oxycodone, over an 8-hour period of time. Prescription bottles warn not to chew or pulverize the pill; so, that's exactly what OxyContin addicts are doing. The time-release coating is sucked off, or otherwise removed, and the pill is then pulverized for snorting or injecting so that an 8-hour dosage can be absorbed into the system all in one euphoric rush.

Some in law enforcement have encouraged physicians to discontinue prescribing the drug that was hailed at the World Pain Care Symposium in Canada when it was approved by the FDA in 1996. OxyContin is prescribed for moderate to severe pain, enabling cancer patients and sufferers of chronic pain to sleep through the night and avoid mood swings during their waking hours.

"Doctor shopping" is prevalent. When one physician cuts off the Oxy supply, the phone book offers a plethora of other caregivers. At the pharmacy, a bottle of one hundred 40-milligram OxyContin pills cost about $400. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, that same bottle sells from $2,000 to $4,000 on the streets. To make the brisk sales even more profitable, health insurance providers are picking up the tab in many cases. Blank prescription tablets are stolen and doctors' names are forged. Pharmacies are robbed and $500-a-day habits are financed with burglaries and bad checks. Paralysis, violent crime and well over one hundred deaths are attributed to OxyContin. These dynamics pose serious challenges to winning the war against Oxy, in what is cited by some authorities as a national epidemic in the making. Yet OxyContin is not the problem. Neither are other opiate derivatives such as Percodan, Percocet and Tylox. OxyContin is a close cousin to codeine and modeled after morphine, which means this new menace to a drug-free America has been around since the 1800s, long before any machination of a drug czar.

There are 3.9 million Americans who use prescription drugs for non-medical reasons, far surpassing the 2.1 million who use heroin and cocaine, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators reports that out of the 20 most commonly abused drugs, 13 are prescription medications. Because there is no established network for prescription drug trafficking, the task is daunting for investigators. A nationwide petition is being distributed in effort to ban Oxycontin, but as drug policy reformers know, if it's not Oxy, then it will be Darvon, Vicodin, Demerol--or glue and aerosol fumes for that matter.

The words of Nora Callahan in her acceptance speech in Washington DC for the 2000 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award ring true as ever. "If drug abuse is an epidemic, then why are cops dispensing the cure?"