OxyContin Use and Abuse
An Epidemic of Abuse, or Invaluable Pain Medication?

Start streaming audio Listen to Noah Adams' report on OxyContin

Doctors say Purdue Pharma's OxyContin is effective for relief of chronic pain -- but in some Appalachian areas, the sythetic opiate is being abused.
Photo: Associated Press

July 31, 2001 -- OxyContin is the best-selling narcotic pain medication in the United States. It earns about $1 billion every year for its manufacturer, Purdue Pharma. Just two pills a day can stave off the worst pain for patients who suffer from cancer or serious injury.

The small pills are at the center of a nationwide controversy over pain management and drug addiction. In some Appalachian regions of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, law enforcement officials say OxyContin addiction is out of control.

NPR's Noah Adams visited towns throughout the New River Valley in southwestern Virginia to talk with law enforcement officials, a doctor, a pharmacist, and a lawyer who has filed suit against the manufacturer.

There are charges that crime is up in the area due to OxyContin -- prescription fraud, break-ins to doctors' offices and pharmacies, property theft -- all to obtain the drug.

What is OxyContin? The active ingredient for the drug is one of the most common opiates on the market, oxycodone -- a powerful synthetic drug that is similar to the active ingredient in Percocet or Vicodin.

Fact File: OxyContin

• Active ingredient: oxycodone hydrochloride. Gram for gram, the chemical is twice as potent as heroin.

• Inert ingredients in the pill delay the active ingredient from being absorbed too quickly. Abusers crush the pills to better release the oxycodone.

• Street names include: Oxy, Oxies, Oxycotton, OCs, Killers, OxyCons

While those two drugs are also abused, the appeal of OxyContin is in its strength. An OxyContin pill contains many times more oxycodone than other prescription opiates. Drug users are known to suck on the pills to take off the protective coating, then crush them into a powder and snort them for a powerful, heroin-like rush.

The drug's potential for addiction has boosted the street price of OxyContin in Pulaski, Va., to $1 a milligram. A bottle of 40-milligram pills can sell for more than $2,000.

The pill has been the subject of a number of critical -- and some say inaccurate -- articles that focus on its potential for abuse. And Purdue Pharma is facing at least three lawsuits tied to overdose deaths from OxyContin abusers.

In response, the company is warning doctors about the potential for abuse. It has also taken the highest dosage off the market, distributed tamper-proof prescription pads and is even considering helping to set up rehabilitation centers.

Other Resources:

Corporate Web site for Purdue Pharma

OxyContin news in Common Sense for Drug Policy

An anti-OxyContin site dubbed Oxy Abuse Kills

Legal moves against Purdue Pharma outlined in LefLaw Net

Cleveland Free Times report -- OxyCon Job: The Media-Made OxyContin Drug Scare