Just what has makes the prescription painkiller OxyContin so coveted by so many, including those who use it for an illicit high?
The appeal to the those who rely on the highly popular drug is its time-release mechanism to fend off chronic pain, allowing a patient to take only one pill every 12 hours. That's a vast improvement for chronic pain sufferers who may have had to take other painkillers as often as six times a day.
Approved in 1995 by the FDA as a moderate-to-severe painkiller, the drug's active ingredient is oxycodone, a morphine-like substance that is found in Percodan and Tylox, other painkillers. While Tylox contains five milligrams of oxycodone, OxyContin contains 40 to 160 milligrams in a time-released formula that controls pain for a longer period of time.
Addicts, unfortunately, have found a way to get to the high dose of oxycodone while circumventing the time-release mechanism: by crushing the pills, then snorting or dissolving and injecting them, resulting in a powerful morphine-like high. That makes them valuable too: A 100-tablet bottle of OxyContin sold for hundreds of dollars at the pharmacy can go for thousands on the street.
As a result, OxyContin has also become one of the nation's most-abused drugs, linked to more than 100 fatal overdoses in the country. OxyContin, often known as "Oxy," is the latest in a long line of "hot" drugs illegitimate users have sought through the legitimate drug dispensers, like emergency rooms and pharmacies. Vicodin was the drug du jour a few years ago, and before that it was methadone.
Thwarted at pharmacies and doctors' offices, addicts and others who want the powerful painkiller OxyContin are straining already strapped emergency rooms in their hunt for the narcotic, doctors and other experts say.
And, they say, some of the drug abusers go to extraordinary lengths to convince doctors they are legitimate patients in need of the drug, sometimes even endangering those doctors, and ultimately even keeping legitimate patients from getting it.
Abusers get prescriptions for the drug by visiting internists or family practice doctors and pretending to be in pain. Some physicians may give patients prescriptions for the painkiller because the patients' act can be very convincing.
"We're seeing a lot more patients coming in to the ER actually asking for OxyContin, and many times demanding it," says Dr. Larry Alexander, medical director of the emergency department at Central Florida Regional Hospital in Sanford, Fla., near Orlando. "We're beginning to see it more routinely because they can't get it on the street or the pharmacy."