All About OxyContin, The Pills Known As ‘Killers’

Intended for patients suffering severe pain, Oxy contains synthetic morphine.

It’s not that acne medicine. You may have never heard of it, but the prescription painkiller OxyContin is addicting or killing an increasing number of young people.

OxyContin is prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain for patients who need around-the-clock relief. In less than a decade on the market, though, the painkiller has gained a reputation as a powerfully addictive drug, according to the DEA, which claims that abusers sometimes turn to crime to sustain their addiction to what is known on the street as killers, OC, Oxy, poor man’s heroin or Oxycotton.

The active ingredient is a 12-hour, time-released form of oxycodone, a synthetic form of morphine that is found in common painkillers like Percodan and Percocet. Jim Heins, a spokesperson for OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, said OxyContin has larger amounts of oxycodone than Percodan or Percocet, in some cases more than 10 times as much.

Approved by the FDA in 1995, the drug has been linked to approximately 400 overdose deaths nationwide since its introduction, according to DEA spokesperson Rogene Wait. The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that chronic use of drugs such as OxyContin can lead to physical dependence and severe withdrawal symptoms if use is stopped, including insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps, and involuntary leg movements. Large doses can cause severe, potentially fatal, respiratory depression.

Though the drug is prescribed to be taken orally by patients suffering from chronic pain, abusers often chew or crush the tablets and snort them or dilute them in water and inject them to quicken the effects. Those uses are warned against in the drug’s indications as potentially harmful or lethal, Heins said.

Former addict Carl Greener, 26, began taking Oxy for chronic lower back pain but was disappointed at the lack of “kick” he was used to from Vicodin and Percocet. After he began snorting the capsules’ contents, he said, he experienced the typical feelings of invincibility, numbness and euphoria abusers report, as well as a lowering of inhibitions in social situations. Not long after, though, Greener found that he had to take two or three doses just to get up enough energy to clean his apartment.

He would wake up with all his joints aching, his stomach in knots, nauseous, his body drenched in a cold sweat and convulsing uncontrollably with severe flulike symptoms that wouldn’t subside until he got another pill in his system. “My lowest point was … I had gone out at night, snorted a ton of Oxy and woke up the next morning in some apartment building, … lying outside the door,” Greener said.

He was in New York in the winter — his jacket, wallet and pills missing — and he was “in the most pain I could possibly be in.” When he tried to go back to his apartment, the doorman told him he’d been kicked out the night before when his roommate called the police on him. Homeless, drugless and caught in a freezing rainstorm, Greener saw rock bottom and enrolled in a 12-step recovery program.

Abusers typically report feelings of invincibility and increased energy at first, but a tolerance is developed over time, requiring larger, more lethal doses that can lead to physical dependence like Greener’s, according to addiction specialist Dr. Kevin McKauley. McKauley said he has watched as OxyContin shifted from use primarily by cancer patients to nonmedical use on the East and West coasts and into one of the most abused drugs in higher socioeconomic brackets.

Prescribed by a doctor, Oxy typically runs about $4 per 40 mg pill. The DEA’s Wait said street prices for the drug are exponentially higher, ranging from 50 cents to $1 per milligram, with 40 mg tablets typically going for $24-40.

Though recovery programs have been somewhat effective in weaning addicts off Oxy, the road is a long one, according to addiction specialist Dr. Kenneth Gheyser, who practices at the Spencer Recovery Center in Laguna Beach, California. “OxyContin leaves a memory in your brain,” Gheyser said. “That sense of euphoria is in the brain and will never go away. So [addicts] are much more prone their entire lives to use this medication more than a person who has never felt that euphoria. Because of that, just to detox a person and get them free of the drug for a short period of time is really not the answer.”

Gheyser said abusers need behavior modification that will help them stay away from the drug for the rest of their lives, which may include Narcotics Anonymous meetings and ongoing counseling.

With sales of the drug in 2000 topping $1 billion in the United States alone, Purdue’s critics — dozens of whom have sued the drug giant, citing inadequate warnings — have alleged that the pharmaceutical giant heavily marketed the drug to doctors without emphasizing enough its addictive properties, a charge Heins refuted.

“We found that people who have been abusing OxyContin have a history of drug abuse and addiction disorder,” Heins said. In 2001 Purdue representatives met with officials from the DEA and FDA to address the concerns. In May 2001, Purdue voluntarily took the 160 mg dosage of OxyContin off the market, according to Heins.

While abuse of illegal drugs such as LSD have dropped over the past few years, in a December 2002 study the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that OxyContin abuse was on the rise. In the first year in which NIDA studied teen Oxy abuse, it stood at 4 percent among high school seniors, 3 percent among 10th graders and 1.3 percent among eighth graders.

If you or someone you know is struggling with OxyContin addiction, here are some resources that can help:

Jack Osbourne spoke for the first time since his stint in rehab for an “MTV News Now” special report (see “Jack Osbourne Reveals He Was Addicted To Painkiller OxyContin” and Ozzy Says Too Much Freedom Contributed To Jack’s Drug Use ).

For Jack’s complete interview, check out “Jack’s Addiction: Jack Osbourne Talks About His Addiction And Recovery” .

Often guilty, never convicted. Serving 15 years to life at MTV News.