Abuse of Prescription Drug Spreads

Friday, February 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The robber asked for only one thing when he walked into a pharmacy with a mask over his head and an automatic rifle in his hands: OxyContin.

The prescription drug, meant to be a painkiller for cancer patients, is being abused throughout the East, authorities say. In Kentucky, about 200 people were arrested and charged this week in what police say was the largest drug raid in state history. All had allegedly been using or dealing OxyContin.

``They'll kick a bag of cocaine out of the way to get to 'Oxy,''' Detective Roger Hall of the Harlan County sheriff's department in Kentucky said this week.

Over the past two years, the drug has become popular in parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and Maine, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence Center.

U.S. Attorney Joseph Famularo, who helped lead the Kentucky bust, said he has studied autopsy reports and determined that the drug has caused 59 deaths in Kentucky alone.

The company that manufactures OxyContin disputes Famularo's figures.

``Even one death from abuse is a tragedy. My concern is that numbers sometimes take on a life of their own in a situation like this,'' said Dr. J. David Haddox, senior medical director for health policy at Purdue Pharma in Stamford, Conn. ``I've not seen any data that those numbers are anywhere close to accurate.''

Famularo said people have been crushing the pills into powder and snorting it, or injecting it to get a euphoric high similar to that of heroin. It sells on the illegal drug market for up to $100 a pill.

In Tuesday's drug roundup, police charged a nurse with stealing OxyContin from her hospital, said Capt. Danny Webb of the Kentucky State Police in Hazard. Webb said another suspect worked in a doctor's office and allegedly called in prescriptions for OxyContin to pharmacies. Her husband would then pick up the pills, police said.

In Ohio, two doctors were arrested recently in connection with OxyContin prescriptions. In Maine last year, 11 people were accused of obtaining OxyContin by forging prescriptions.

The drug has led to an increase in crime in eastern Kentucky, said Hazard Police Chief Rod Maggard. He estimated 90 percent of the thefts and burglaries in Hazard are to get money to buy more pills.

In a detox center in Ashland, about 75 percent of the patients treated over the past 18 months have used OxyContin, said Bill Stewart, a supervisor for the regional mental health agency.

OxyContin's withdrawal symptoms, Stewart said, involve nausea, diarrhea and severe stomach cramps. ``People very much want to go back to use again, instead of suffering through withdrawal,'' Stewart said.

Traditionally, Stewart said, drugs like crack cocaine and heroin arrived in Kentucky long after they became popular in urban centers like New York, Miami or Los Angeles. ``But we seem to have caught on real fast to this drug,'' he said.

Police believe people in the region are more likely to abuse prescription medications because they are more readily available than illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin and carry less of a social stigma.

The Kentucky bust wasn't the state's first encounter with the drug. Last May, 10 people were charged with running a drug operation out of a rural home that police say was nearly as busy as a local fast-food restaurant's drive-through window. OxyContin was among the drugs they allegedly offered for sale.

Police saw more than 59,000 vehicles pull up to the driveway of the rural home during a five-month period last year. Investigators say as many as 600 were seen in the driveway in one day.

``I'd love to be able to put an end this problem,'' said Britt Lewis, administrator of a medical clinic in Harlan. ``There's too many people dying.''


On the Net:

Drug Enforcement Agency: http://www.dea.gov/

Purdue Pharma: http://www.pharma.com/