Pain drug use on peninsula growing for wrong reasons

Posted: Tuesday, July 09, 2002

It is one of those endless summer nights when it seems that the days for school and snow will never come again. A few friends are gathered listening to music booming from a stereo and tossing back a few brews.

As the night progresses, a haphazard gathering grows and the beer flows until the evening shows potential for becoming "the" party of the summer.

Inhibitions are traded in for a $5-all-the-beer-you-can-handle cup. Tables become stages for the latest dance moves. Seconds are counted off by a mob around the keg as someone dangles over it squeezing beer out of the tap and into his or her mouth.

It is an average Kenai Peninsula summer party full of youth searching for a way to make the summer days a little less monotonous. But, in one significant way, it differs from parties of three or four years ago.

Now, more than beer is circulating among the party-goers. A new drug has lured area youth into its tempting tendrils.

A simple inquiry at most parties can result in several dealers offering the powerful prescription drug, OxyContin.

"We're seeing it left and right, younger and younger," said Tod McGillivray, a member of the panel that introduced the OxyContin issue to the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce last week.

"It is a large problem. We probably got more dealers with prescription narcotics than anything else. (OxyContin) is the No. 1 drug of choice right now on the peninsula," said the Soldotna Police Department sergeant.

But, the high comes at a powerful price.

The going rate for OxyContin, which is generally distributed in 40 or 80 milligram pills, is $1 per milligram. An $80 hit is an expensive trip for someone on a minimum wage budget.

Users also pay for the drug with more than a buck. Already in 2002, six deaths in the state have been attributed to OxyContin.

On the peninsula in the summer of 2001, a head-on collision near Solid Rock Bible Camp on the Sterling Highway took the life of an elderly man. He was hit by a younger man who, while driving under the influence of OxyContin, drifted over the center line and rammed into the oncoming car.

In 2000, 25-year-old Meghan McCord of Kenai, daughter of surgeon Byron McCord, was one of three central peninsula deaths attributed to OxyContin.

It isn't just the death toll that leads concerned citizens to believe OxyContin is being abused on the peninsula. Although this region only makes up 6 percent of the state's population, 20 percent of all Medicaid prescriptions come from this Southcentral region, said Stan Steadman, a member of the Prescription Narcotics for Chronic Pain panel that was convened by McCord shortly after his daughter's death.

"We're drawing an assumption that where we have 6 percent of the population consuming 20 percent of the drug, we have a problem," he said.

The hillbilly heroin, so-called because of its popularity in the south, is taken much like true heroin.

"You can take a long-acting drug and crush it and it makes it quick acting," said Tara Ruffner, who represents Soldotna Profes-sional Pharmacy on the panel.

Once the drug, which is intended to be released over a 12-hour period, is crushed, someone can then swallow, inject or snort it for a short-lived but powerful high, Ruffner said. Because it is frequently prescribed, it is not difficult to obtain the drug for recreational purposes.

As an additional incentive to sell one's prescription, each bottle generally contains 180, 80 milligram pills. Considering each pill is worth $80, that adds up to a $14,400 pure profit for someone who gets their prescriptions paid for through Medicare, Medicaid or any other health care plan.

According to Ruffner, Soldotna Professional Pharmacy fills prescriptions for 13,000 tablets every month.

"That's a tremendous amount," she said.

Considering that an insurance company or individual is charged $5 or $6 a pill, for someone not selling the drug, but abusing their own prescription, that can be as much as $1,080 out of pocket every time a prescription is refilled.

Already in 2002, around $425,000 has been expended on the drug in the peninsula communities.

"By and large, our medical community is responsible," said Steadman who represents Healthy Communities-Healthy People on the panel. "There are a few doctors in the community that overprescribe medication."

In Anchorage in 2001, Dr. Jeffrey Gottlieb was found guilty of prescribing OxyContin and other drugs to patients who were selling the prescription narcotics on the street.

Theoretically, the morphine-like, FDA-approved narcotic is meant to be used to alleviate moderate to severe chronic pain. The pills, which contain anywhere from 40 to 80 milligrams of oxycodone, are prescribed by physicians to be taken twice daily.

"Because it is legally available, it is socially acceptable, even to those who would never consider being a drug addict," said Sue Caswell, the director of the chemical dependency residential treatment center Serenity House, a drug and alcohol abuse treatment center, and another member of the panel.

"It reaches people that would otherwise would not have been in the market at all. It is a gateway that is more socially acceptable."

Regardless of how the drug is perceived or who the user is, it can still have dangerous and expensive ramifications.

In addition to fatalities related to the drug, a significant amount of federal money is expended yearly as a result of OxyContin misuse. Eighty percent of patients prescribed to take OxyContin are on a form of public assistance.

The crime, broken lives and deaths are what Steadman calls the dark side of OxyContin, which has begun to overshadow the benefits of the drug.

"In reality, it is a very positive drug when used in certain situations," said Ruffner.

The drug allows a lifestyle without pain. In many cases, OxyContin has allowed cancer patients to resume functional lives while combating the disease.

"Legally, it deals with real pain," Steadman said.

The problem arises when teens and others try to use the drug to deal with emotional rather than physical pain.

"People don't have a sense of direction, a sense of hope," said John Henry of the North Star United Methodist Church in Nikiski and a member of the panel.

He added that he sees people combating the emptiness in their lives by using drugs as an escape.

"It keeps people anesthetized to their own reality."

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