Monday, February 06, 2006

OxyContin rises as highly abused drug

The Oregonian

Painkiller - From the miracle pain killer or addictive narcotic, many get a heroin-like feeling

The prescription painkiller at the heart of armed robbery charges against a Clackamas County sheriff's deputy has fueled addiction or drug treatment for thousands of Americans, ranging from rock musician Courtney Love to conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.

Drug counselors and researchers describe OxyContin -- nicknamed OC, Oxycotton or hillbilly heroin -- as a miracle painkiller and a devastatingly addictive narcotic that sells on the street for as much as $80 a tablet or $1 per milligram.

"It's a potent opiate that activates brain systems that motivate people to do things they might not normally do," said David Grandy, an associate professor of physiology and pharmacology at Oregon Health & Science University.

OxyContin, produced by Purdue Pharma, a private company based in Stamford, Conn., is the trade name for oxycodone hydrochloride, a time-release painkiller approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1995. Abusers tend to chew the pills or crush and inhale them to get a euphoric feeling similar to that produced by heroin.

One factor in the popularity of OxyContin, Grandy said, is convenience: "It's just easy to take. . . . It comes in pill form."

In the 10 years it has been on the market, OxyContin has become one of the country's most-abused prescription drugs.

In 2003, an estimated 13.7 million Americans 12 and older had used OxyContin nonmedically at least once in their lifetime, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That number compared with an estimated 1.9 million U.S. residents who used heroin at least once, according to the survey.

The dangers of addiction to OxyContin have become more widely known because of several celebrity cases.

In 2003, Limbaugh announced that he was temporarily leaving his national radio show for treatment of an addiction that began when he was prescribed OxyContin after failed spinal surgery.

In October 2003, Love overdosed on OxyContin several hours after she was arrested on suspicion of drug use. At the time, Love denied dependency on prescription drugs.

Addiction to painkillers often begins with a doctor's prescription to control severe pain, especially the pain associated with tissue loss in cancer patients.

Stuart Rosenblum, physician director of the Pain Management Center at Legacy Emanuel Hospital & Health Center, said that although "virtually every pain medication" has abuse potential, addiction "has more to do with the individual than with the drug itself."

"The majority of people don't like the feeling of being medicated," Rosenblum said. "A minority, a subset of the general population, like the feelings that these drugs can produce. . . . The thing that is confusing is the psychic disturbance it causes in some people. That is intriguing."

It's those individual differences, Rosenblum said, that make it difficult for doctors to decide who can handle a pain medication as strong and effective as OxyContin and who is likely to become addicted.

Eric Martin, director of the Addiction Counselors Certification Board of Oregon, said illicit Internet marketing, combined with prescription fraud, has fueled the illegal OxyContin trade.

The Drug Enforcement Administration said officials seized 37,543 OxyContin pills ordered online and sent through the mail last year across the United States.

In recent years, the drug has become an increasing problem among high school students. Last year, 5.5 percent of U.S. high school seniors acknowledged illicit use of the drug within the past year, according to an annual survey conducted by the University of Michigan.

"The broader story is that people are getting these drugs through the Internet," Martin said. "You don't have to go into the shady parts of town to get drugs anymore. It moves from the street corner into your living room."

Reporter Aimee Green contributed to this report. Timothy A. Akimoff


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