A Prescription for Tragedy

Jan Spector, a 58-year-old Atlanta resident, has experienced persistent migraines since receiving a head injury in 1992.

Though he found himself on a revolving menu of pain medications over the years, he says that he "pretty much had everything on an even keel" before he was prescribed OxyContin in the fall of 2006.

"By December, I felt like it had turned my life upside down," he told ABC News. "I felt like what the Oxy did for me was that it overrode some of the other pain relievers that had been working OK. I imagine that it might have worked better at a higher dose, but I was not willing to do that."

Rather than begin a downward spiral of self-medication, Spector sought medical help and rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, many others who have been introduced to the drug are more eager to up their doses themselves. And some doctors who deal with pain fear that OxyContin possesses the potential for both dependency and addiction for many legitimate users -- as well as those seeking a quick high.

Pain Pills on the Street

Like a growing number of pain medications, OxyContin is a drug with two vastly different faces.

In the clinical setting, it is the trade name for the drug oxycodone, a long-acting pain reliever that many chronic pain sufferers view as a godsend.

On the street, however, the drug goes by many other names, including "Oxy," "O.C.," and "killer." Along with ecstasy, Vicodin and inhalants, OxyContin was one of only four drugs to show a continued increase in use throughout 2005, according to the annual "Monitoring the Future" report funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Over the years, researchers found that OxyContin use increased sharply from 4 percent in 2002 to 5.5 percent in 2005 -- a nearly 40 percent jump in three years.

The most recent figures provided by the researchers show that OxyContin abuse in this age group dropped back to 4.3 percent in 2006. But the news wasn't all good; in this same year, 8th- and 10th-grade students, who had not previously been showing much increase in their OxyContin use, reached their highest levels of OxyContin abuse observed so far.

A Drug Destined for Abuse?

So how does a drug that is often prescribed for cancer patients or those with chronic back pain become the prescription of choice for those looking for a high?

Some experts say the time-release drug, by its very design, provides an uncommonly high incentive for abuse.

"The primary reasons why Oxycontin became a widely abused drug are because the company heavily promoted it for inappropriate indications, and because the sustained release mechanism could be easily bypassed," says Michael Katz, clinical associate professor of pharmacy practice and science at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

"This means that a single tablet, once crushed or otherwise altered, could then be dissolved and injected or snorted," he explained. "No other sustained-release [drugs have] such a by-passable mechanism and are, therefore, inherently less subject to improper use."

And those looking for a quick and significant high were more than willing to alter the pill in order to take advantage of 12 hours worth of pain medication in one massive hit.

"Addicts will crush and inject it; they'll do anything," says Dr. Joseph Shurman, chair of the Pain Clinic at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. "Several companies are trying to work on a tamper-proof version, but it is difficult."

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