May 26, 2018
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Two-Edged OxyContin

Scott Haskell | BDN
Scott Haskell | BDN
These green 80 milligram OxyContin tablets sell for $80 each on the street. The pink 20 milligram tablets fetch $20 each. This pain reliever is becoming the recreational drug of choice in Maine, authorities say.


Maine leads the nation in OxyContin addiction, with its accompanying high rates of robbery, vehicle crashes, overdoses and death. Yet many doctors value this drug, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since 1995, as a powerful tool in pain management.

Holdups and break-ins are the most spectacular means by which addicts get the drug. Pharmacy robberies and burglaries in Maine have shot up from only two in 2008 and seven in 2008 to 21 in 2010, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. A recent one was in April at a CVS pharmacy in Sanford. A woman claimed she had a gun and threatened to shoot if she didn’t get a prescription for OxyContin.

More commonly, abusers get the pills from family members or friends who have obtained them with legal prescriptions. In addition, dealers have been getting a supply from cooperative physicians in this country or Canada and bringing them to Maine. An 80-milligram pill is said to sell for $100.

The drug is produced by Purdue Pharma, and its active ingredient is oxycodone, an opium derivative like morphine. The pills are coated, to provide a gradual release over 12 hours. Addicts chew them up, so as to get a euphoric high and sense of personal power. Some abusers also dissolve the pills and inject the fluid by needle.

Authorities say that the drug carries a special appeal to low-paid workers who labor long hours under difficult conditions.

Maine’s leadership in OxyContin addiction is measured by a surge in the rate of treatment over the past decade. In 2008, Maine had 386 people per 100,000 under treatment for addiction by opioid (opium-derived) drugs, eight times the national average, up from only 28 per 100,000 in 1998. Vermont followed closely with 331 per 100,000, up from 20 in 1998. Other states lag far behind.

Maine authorities were already calling the painkiller addiction an epidemic in 2000. Jay McCloskey, then the U.S. attorney in Maine, and Bangor police Lt. Peter Arno led a two-year campaign against the drug, trying to persuade Maine high school students to avoid trying it. Mr. McCloskey said in 2001: “I believe it is the greatest criminal problem and possibly the greatest social problem facing Maine.”

The U.S. FDA last year approved a new formulation of OxyContin designed to resist tampering and abuse. The pills are treated so that dissolving produces a gummy substance that cannot be drawn into a syringe or injected. It is not clear how the new formulation can discourage chewing or crushing the tablets.

It will take better efforts by the drug maker, state and federal regulators, police, drug-enforcement agencies, and, above all, restraint by tempted abusers to abate this still-mounting epidemic. But pain control is essential, so outlawing OxyContin would be unwise.

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