Aug. 21, 2009— -- Propofol, the high-risk sedative suspected in Michael Jackson's death, is a drug that is being increasingly abused by its users, say researchers and addiction experts.
Yet, one group abusing one of the most widely used anesthetics is surprising even veteran medical professionals: doctors and nurses with medical access to the drug.
Experts say propofol abuse is growing because unlike many prescription pain medications, propofol is not a federally controlled substance. And with more medical professionals now using the drug, it's creating pressure to change its status to controlled substance."
A survey of academic anesthesia training programs published in the journal, Anesthesia & Analgesia suggests propofol abuse among doctors and nurses increased 500% over 10 years.
The number of reported cases was more than two dozen, but experts believe there may be many more that are never detected. The study found that of medical professionals known to abuse propofol, 28 % died from it.
"It's like three drugs rolled into one," says Dr. Paul Wischmeyer of the University of Colorado Denver. "It's like marijuana, Valium and the club drug Ketomine. It creates a unique high like no other drug."
Researchers and addiction experts say even medical professionals can get hooked on the drug because when used at lower doses, propofol produces a semi-conscious state, leaving many high or even giddy. Some doctors have dubbed it "dancing with the white rabbit."
And since propofol wears off quickly - in 5 to 7 minutes – a doctor or nurse is not left groggy. But that also means maintaining that high can require a series of 30 to 40 injections.
Thayne Flora, a former nurse anesthetist in Virginia, says she was once hooked on propofol.
"Part of it is wanting to escape from pain, emotional, physical," she says. "And it just makes you go away for a while."
"If you can imagine you're injecting yourself 30 times and the drug is wearing off, but you're still slightly impaired, how accurate do you think you are with a small syringe?" says Wischmeyer.
In most hospitals today, propofol is as easy to obtain as antibiotics. And that's a big part of the problem.
Some doctors now say medical centers need to lock up propofol supplies and closely monitor inventories to help protect medical professionals from an unusually deadly form of drug abuse.