OxyContin: An Epidemic and the Winners in the War

The ongoing battle against abuse of pharmaceuticals is showing no signs of slowing down as 2011 comes to a close. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 20 percent of U.S. residents have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons. At the forefront of this recreational drug use is OxyContin. According to the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future Survey, 1 in 20 high school seniors have abused OxyContin, and its prevalence among adolescents and older groups is perhaps best documented by an abundance of legitimate prescriptions, more than 100 million in the 15 years.

Despite the pain killer’s direct or indirect relation to more than 11,000 deaths in 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the popularity of OxyContin abuse has led to a sharp rise in criminal behavior to obtain the drug. An organization known as RXPatrol, which consists of pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma and various law enforcement agencies, reported in 2011 that pharmacy robberies in the last seven years neared the 2,000 mark. Attempted robberies averted by law enforcement, security systems or the pharmacists themselves who may post signs that OxyContin is not available, are not included in that figure.

Judging by sales of the product, two different groups are benefiting from the growing market for OxyContin. One group profits from the illicit sales, enhanced by large quantities made available during pharmacy robberies, although smaller quantities obtained through theft of OxyContin from a family member’s prescription can also be profitable. In Seattle, for example, investigators report the drug is being stolen and resold for a dollar a milligram. That translates to a revenue of roughly $5,000 for a bottle of sixty 80-milligram pills.

OxyContin also has become more profitable than ever for large-scale dispensers, many of whom set up so-called “pill mills” and “pain clinics”, in numerous states including Georgia and Florida. This quick distribution of OxyContin in exchange for cash generally includes little or no physical examination of patients, often due to the lack of trained or licensed health care professionals. Even though these operations have drawn the attention of law enforcement agencies and municipality leaders, the ability to quickly move them from one locale to another or from state to state makes it challenging to shut down the operators entirely.

The continuous efforts to reduce OxyContin abuse are coming from two different directions. Newly created databases allow most states, except Missouri and New Hampshire, to monitor prescriptions, giving doctors a view of a patient’s records to see if multiple narcotics prescriptions have been ordered. Also, the databases help pharmacists recognize doctors or clinics that are dispensing an unusually high quantity of prescriptions, and the same records allow police to strengthen cases against so-called “pill mills.”

Addiction specialists are also taking aim at abuse of this highly addictive drug. In Texas, addiction specialists at Burning Tree recognize that dependence on OxyContin may stem from previous substance abuse and co-occurring mental illness. The success rate of treating an OxyContin-dependent individual is increased with a dual diagnosis approach that integrates treatment for both disorders, while in a long-term drug rehabilitation setting. Burning Tree operates two such facilities, outside of Dallas and Austin, treating individuals from all 48 contiguous states.


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