Police trying to find solution to increased use of narcotic

Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Law enforcement officers agree no simple answer satisfies the question, "Why does the Kenai Penin-sula have only 6 percent of the state's population but 15 percent of the Medicaid prescriptions for OxyContin?"

Actually many reasons contribute to the disparity between the number of people here and the number of prescriptions being written for the pain medicine.

"Number one is the type of employment we have here -- refinery and logging industry jobs -- where more people are apt to get seriously hurt and get medicine for the pain," said Soldotna Police detective Sgt. Tod McGillivray.

"Secondly, Purdue Pharma (manufacturer of OxyContin) did a wonderful job of marketing the drug and a lot of doctors here jumped on the bandwagon.

"And, in the drug community there's good word of mouth. They hear they can crush Oxy and get a high like heroin, and there's no stigma attached to it like there is with illegal drugs," McGillivray said.

That third factor -- the illegal use of the prescription medication to get high -- is the focus of law enforcement and of the upcoming community summit, "Pain Pills -- Friend and Foe," from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Satur-day at the Soldotna High School library.

Without a prescription, possessing OxyContin is illegal, said McGillivray.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agrees that the prominence of OxyContin on the Kenai Peninsula cannot be attributed to one single cause.

"It's possible for any set of circumstances to come together to create a situation like on the peninsula. You have the desire of the people and the market for (OxyContin) is there," said Zoran Yankovich, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA's office in Anchorage.

"It would be highly unlikely that all the OxyContin being prescribed is going to those it is prescribed for," he said.

Yankovich also said abusers of the drug on the peninsula might be using more OxyContin and less of some other drug.

"A good example is California where for years there was a big cocaine problem. Then along came (methamphetamines) and in recent years there's more meth there than coke," he said.

When used as directed, Oxy-Contin provides 12 hours of pain relief, and generally is prescribed to cancer patients and people suffering from severe chronic pain.

When misused, however, OxyContin pills are crushed into a powder and snorted or liquefied and injected for an instant rush of euphoria the pain medicine can produce. The "high" has been compared to that experienced by heroin users.

McGillivray said two "pain management" doctors operated on the peninsula a few years ago and overprescribed OxyContin, creating an abundant supply of the narcotic.

"I was working on a case recently, and I talked to a local physician whose name was on the prescription bottle," McGillivray said.

McGillivray said the physician told him another doctor earlier had been treating peninsula residents for pain.

The physician told McGillivray, "He got a lot of people hooked on Oxy and when he left, someone had to take over and fill prescriptions for these clients."

"My message to the medical community is that the prescription they're writing doesn't just affect the user. It affects the entire community," said McGillivray of doctors who knowingly overprescribe OxyContin.

The pills are prescribed in 10-, 20-, 40- and 80-milligram sizes, the most common as a street drug being 80 milligrams. Each 80-milligram pill has a street value of $80.

"The drug abuse leads to burglaries and theft. Could it lead to armed robbery? Sure," he said.

"Oxys are a depressant, so users will have a sluggish demeanor," McGillivray said.

If people use OxyContin illegally, then operate a vehicle, they can be arrested and charged with driving under the influence, he said.

Their driving will be impaired, possibly leading to an accident. Three driving under the influence convictions in Alaska constitute a felony.

Possessing OxyContin without a prescription and abusing the drug also can bring a charge of third- or fourth-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance, class B and class C felonies, respectively.

While police do actively arrest and charge illegal users of OxyContin, McGillivray said, their goals are higher.

"We want to try to stop the diversion of it. We need to stop it at the dealer level."

Diversion is the term law enforcement uses to describe the illegal movement of a legal drug into the illegal drug-use arena.

"We now have two diversion investigators assigned to this office," said Yankovich. "They work on legally manufactured drugs."

"We definitely have some doctors doing pain management clinics on the peninsula now," said Investigator Tobin Brennan, a Soldotna police officer on assignment with the Statewide Drug Enforcement Task Force at Alaska State Troopers E Detachment in Soldotna.

"We're keeping an eye on them. It's all a matter of catching them in the act," he said.

Brennan said most of the doctors he has worked with on the peninsula are good at limiting the amount of OxyContin they're giving out.

"The only way we can limit the amount available for illegal use is to restrict the amount given out legally," Brennan said.

The Soldotna Police Depart-ment also is taking a proactive approach to the OxyContin problem by providing education in area schools through the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program.

Although McGillivray said the OxyContin problem is most prevalent in the 20-to-40 age group, he believes informing younger students through the DARE program can prevent them from abusing the drug later.

"The response from the kids has been good," he said.

"One reason Oxys are so popular is that they're legal," McGilli-vray said. "People don't consider themselves addicted to a substance that a doctor is prescribing.

"OxyContin is an incredibly valuable drug. It has many great uses. But a few see its value as a misused drug."

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