Prescription for Addiction: Pain Drug's Abusers Range from Celebrities to College Students


In the eight years since OxyContin was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the opium-based painkiller has gone from miracle drug to what some experts fear may be a nationwide epdemic.

Seemingly almost overnight, OxyContin is on the lips and in the mouths of nearly every segment of the population, from college students to little old ladies to MTV's Jack Osbourne, who admitted his OxyContin addiction in April an dhas since been through rehab. Courtney Love and Rush Limbaugh are among a growing list of high-profile people who have given OxyContin abuse national exposure.

And Chicago has its fair share of abusers, especially young adults. "I've worked in addiction treatment for 24 years," said addiction specialist Jake Epperly, president of Midwest Rapid Opiate Detoxification Specialists in Chicago. "I have never seen a phenomenom like this OxyContin thing." Dubbed everything from "hillbilly heroin" to "heroin in a pill," OxyContin has become one of the most abused pain pills in the nation, experts say. Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, is preparing a report-due next month- on the marketing of OxyContin. Some critics contend that the FDA should require tighter restrictions on prescriptions for the narcotic.

Why would congress be concerned about the marketing of a pill meant for handling chronic and severe pain? Because the abuse of OxyContin "has taken hold across the country," said Dr. Andrea Barthwell, deputy director of drug demand reduction for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The narcotic has moved into urban and suburban areas from rural areas, where authorities first began tracking its abuse several years ago. The Drug Enforcement Administration says OxyContin is a "highly abused substance" in Illinois, as are Vicodin, Lorcet and Lortab. According to the DEA, prescription drugs are abused almost twice as often as illegal drugs, and 1 million people nationwide have used OxyContin for non-medical reasons.

Epperly said his rehab clinic is seeing large increases in patients younger than 25.

"It's definitely increasing in Chicago, there's no doubt about it," Epperly said. "The opiate population of Chicago generally has younger people." While OxyContin addiction touches a broad range of people, Epperly said he's finding that this is more of a suburban, upper middle-class white thing." Epperly is also concerned that parents and educators are missing signs of the epidemic.

"A lot of people's heads are in the sand," Epperly said. "You go around Geneva, St. Charles, Hinsdale, that area, and they don't realize the kids are on this OxyContin stuff."

Computer users are assailed daily with spam pushing prescription drugs from legal and illegal Web sites. The FDA and the DEA earlier this month formed a task force that will aggressively pursue outfits that market prescription drugs illegally over the Internet.

While some are criticizing the marketing of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, which manufactures the drug, is spending more than $200 million to education health-care professionals and warn parents about the danger of OxyContin abuse.

It is an effort that didn't reach Indiana residents Steven Mayer and his wife, Amber, until it was too late.

The pair became addicted to OxyContin in 2000 shortly after some friends with legitimate presciptions shared some pills with them. At first, Steven Mayer told the Journal Gazette in Ft. Wayne, Ind., he chewed the pills to get high; later, he injected it.

To feed their addiction, the pair went on a two and a half year robbery spree, stealing from pharmacies in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio until they were arrested and convicted, he said.

Steven Mayer was sentenced to 35 years in prison, while his wife is serving a 6-year sentence. OxyContin "took the place of everything," he told the newspaper.

Authorities aren't only targeting addicts. Dr. WIlliam Hurwitz, a 57-year-old pain-treatment specialist, was recently indicted in Virginia on federal charges of over-prescribing pain killers.

Hurtwitz's critics point to previous runnins with the law to justify the prosecution, but supporters believe he and other doctors in the field of pain management are being unfairly targeted simply because they're helping people in pain.

"There is no question that doctors now fear being held liable if they prescribe painkillers," said Dr. Michael Fleming, president of the 94,000-member American Academy of Family Physiciams.