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Oxycontin Abuse:
Maine's Newest Epidemic
January, 2002
Substance Abuse Services Commission
in conjunction with the
Maine Office of Substance Abuse

What Is Oxycontin?

Oxycontin is a prescription pain medication introduced in 1995 by Purdue Pharma, a privately held pharmaceutical company.  The drug that makes up Oxycontin, Oxycodone HCl, has been available for many years in lower dose forms or in combination with aspirin (e.g. Percodan) or acetaminophen (e.g. Tylox).  What makes Oxycontin unique among products containing Oxycodone is its time-release formula that allows a larger dose to be administered at one time, but to be released into the blood stream over the course of twelve hours.  Patients are able to take fewer pills per day. It is particularly useful for patients with chronic pain who, prior to its introduction, could not sleep through the night without waking for a dose of medication.  It is available in 10 to 80 mg. doses.  The 160 mg. dose which was previously available has been discontinued.

The package insert on the medication specifies several times that the pills are to be taken whole and that breaking, crushing, or chewing them will lead to a rapid release of the drug, which for patients who are not tolerant may prove fatal.

Oxycontin is a Schedule II narcotic that is highly regulated.  Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, all potentially abused drugs are classified under Schedule I – V.  Schedule I drugs are illegal and have no medical purpose.  Schedule II drugs are legal for medical purposes, but have a high potential for abuse.  Any one who wants to sell Schedule II drugs must register with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and use their registration number in any purchase or sale of the drug.  They are required to account for every milligram dispensed, and must store the drugs under lock and key.  Other Schedule II drugs that are commonly known are methadone, Adderall, and Demerol. 

The Substance Abuse Services Commission

The Substance Abuse Services Commission was established by statute (Title 5, Ch. 521, subchapter 4-A, §20065) in 1993 to advise, consult and assist the Governor, the executive and legislative branches of state government and Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court with activities of state government related to drug abuse including alcoholism.  

Over the course of the past two years, Maine’s growing problem with Oxycontin has received national attention.  From the first story in the Bangor Daily News [1] in April of 2000 through recent press coverage in the Los Angeles Times [2] , Maine is cited as one of the first places where Oxycontin abuse was identified.  In fact, the director of the federal agency, Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, who came to Maine in August, 2000 to address the Bangor community on methadone treatment for opiate abuse, continues to say that he had not heard of the abuse of Oxycontin until he visited Maine. 

Over the past year, there has been much publicity regarding criminal behavior in addicts or dealers seeking Oxycontin.  Rarely before have we heard of armed robberies at pharmacies where the robber asks for a specific drug and a specific dosage.  Rarely before have the elderly and the terminally ill had their homes invaded by drug seeking criminals.   Similar drugs have been available for many years, and we know there has been prescription drug abuse as long as there have been prescription drugs.  The Commission convened a special sub-committee to seek answers as to why this drug seemed to be so different.

The Washington County communities that have been hit the hardest by abuse of this drug have cried out for help.  Per capita use in the county is significantly higher than elsewhere in the state.  Anecdotal accounts led us to believe that no one in the area had been untouched.  In the past, drug fads have begun in urban areas, and often not made it to Maine, or came to our state several years later than other parts of the country (witness the current epidemic of methamphetamine abuse in the west which has not yet reached Maine, or the fact that club drugs, so popular in Europe and urban America have only gained widespread use in Maine within the past year.)  The Commission set out to ask: what made Oxycontin the so-called “Hillbilly Heroin”?

Finally, in addition to seeking information, the Commission sought advice from the people most in touch with the epidemic.  Law enforcement officials, medical professionals, treatment providers, and recovering addicts themselves were consulted to gain information and advice.  The Commission wanted to know: what did they think needed to be done differently?

Fact-finding Methods

A subcommittee of the Substance Abuse Services Commission met from August through December.  The committee gathered data from available sources including treatment admissions data from the Office of Substance Abuse, health statistics and hospital admissions from the Bureau of Health, local crime data from Uniform Crime Reports and the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency (MDEA), and death rate data from the Medical Examiner’s Office, and national data from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN).

In addition to compiling and analyzing existing data, the subcommittee on Oxycontin abuse held two focus groups:  one for law enforcement officials and one for medical providers.  The list of participants is in Appendix I.  Finally, we interviewed drug addicts themselves.  They were all in recovery, but their use was recent.  The longest period of abstinence was less than a year, the shortest, just over one month.  They had a great deal to say about the ease of access to illegal drugs, including illegally obtained prescription drugs, and the difficulty in accessing treatment services.

History

There has always been some level of prescription drug abuse in Maine.  “Doctor shopping” has been the most common method for obtaining prescription drugs.  Patients had several doctors prescribing at one time for a variety of ills.  Often patients would claim that a prescription was lost in order to get an additional one.  Prescription drugs that were abused included narcotics:  Dilaudid and Percocet for example, and other drugs like Valium, Xanax, and Ritalin.

Oxycontin was introduced in 1995.  In 1996 Maine treatment providers began seeing a slow but steady increase in the numbers of people entering treatment for prescription drug abuse.  This increase remained small but significant until 1998, when annual admissions for prescription drug abuse began an exponential growth curve which continued through July 2001, the most recent data available.

Figure 1:

Number of Clients Treated for Opiate Abuse by County of Residence

 

1995

1996

1997

1998

1999

2000

2001

Androscoggin

22

15

8

15

16

24

29

Aroostook

5

7

8

18

17

24

46

Cumberland

103

131

116

168

238

346

386

Franklin

2

2

2

3

2

5

9

Hancock

1

7

3

8

15

31

61

Kennebec

18

20

20

39

64

31

8

Knox

9

14

16

18

25

30

52

Lincoln

3

2

9

15

11

9

18

Oxford

5

9

6

10

19

13

13

Penobscot

12

16

32

61

117

255

357

Piscataquis

4

1

4

6

3

7

16

Sagadahoc

6

8

6

7

8

22

34

Somerset

6

5

10

10

14

13

23

Waldo

5

8

4

12

8

20

30

Washington

9

15

21

46

81

160

144

York

20

24

26

39

69

97

66

Total

230

284

291

475

707

1087

1292

Source: Maine Office of Substance Abuse Treatment Data System.  Data based on primary, secondary and tertiarydrug identified at admission.

By mid 1999, it became clear to the Office of Substance Abuse that a methadone treatment program needed to be opened in the northern half of the state where most of the growth in prescription opiate abuse was occurring.  OSA issued a Request For Proposals, and a grant was awarded to Acadia Hospital in December 1999.

The MDEA was confronted with the emerging issue of opiate abuse (heroin and prescription opiates) beginning three years ago.  During 1998, MDEA started to receive reports of increased opiate prescription drug activity among drug users.  This was followed by an increase in complaints involving opiate prescription fraud.  Worthy of note was the age of those involved in opiate prescription drug use.  Offenders ranged from high school age to those long known to law enforcement authorities for their substance abuse.  Following close on the heels of increased prescription drug abuse, MDEA witnessed an increased activity in reports of heroin use and distribution.

The percentage of MDEA investigations that resulted in arrest for use and sale of opiates rose from 15% in FY1998 to 43% in FY2001 of all its cases (see Figure 2).  MDEA’s seizure of opiates has also increased dramatically.  For FY2001, heroin seizures rose 171% over FY2000 amounts and 622% over FY1999 levels.  The incidence of needles being discovered during the course of a drug search have become commonplace over this same time span.

Figure 2:

MDEA Opiate Arrests - 1998 - 2001

Source:  Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.

Heroin and prescription opiate cases present challenges that the traditional illegal drugs do not.  The major suppliers of heroin are located in northern Massachusetts. Because of this, it is difficult for Maine law enforcement to substantially impact heroin distribution.  The usual Maine trafficker is an addict who turns to drug distribution to support his addiction.  The addiction interferes with the addict’s reliability when electing to cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation of the source of the supply of the drug.  The same is true of the opiate prescription addict.  The number of cases involving the acquisition of opiate prescriptions by defrauding physicians and pharmacists has extracted a tremendous toll on MDEA’s resources. 

According to Uniform Crime Reports data, arrests for synthetic narcotics have doubled over the past five years.  What is dramatic about these arrests is the local nature of the problem.  Oxford County had a significant decrease in arrests for sale or possession of synthetic narcotics between 1995 and 2000.  There is no apparent widespread problem in that county as indicated by treatment, arrest, hospital admissions, or deaths.  On the other hand, Washington County, which has been identified by all measures as having a significant problem, has had arrests grow eight-fold.

Figure 3:

Uniform Crime Data:  Adult Synthetic Narcotic Arrests

NAME

1995

1996

1997

1998

1999

2000

Androscoggin

12

31

8

2

13

12

Aroostook

9

2

26

27

8

18

Cumberland

16

22

26

25

51

50

Franklin

3

3

3

1

7

7

Hancock

0

2

7

2

1

0

Kennebec

11

6

10

11

7

15

Knox

6

6

3

13

12

12

Lincoln

1

0

0

2

3

2

Oxford

25

5

2

7

8

4

Penobscot

11

26

28

35

11

28

Piscataquis

1

0

0

0

0

0

Sagadahoc

2

0

0

2

1

0

Somerset

3

0

1

2

4

0

Waldo

0

0

3

3

1

3

Washington

7

6

14

4

9

58

York

8

21

18

11

25

30

State Totals

115

130

149

147

161

239

Source:  Uniform Crime Report, Maine Department of Public Safety.

The Bangor Daily News published an investigative story in April, 2000 entitled “Narcotics Abuse on Rise, Pharmaceutical Drug Fraud, Misuse Worry Officials”. [3]   The story followed an addict and outlined the concern of law enforcement and treatment professionals in Washington and Penobscot Counties on what was fast becoming an epidemic in the area.  The story broke the news of the impending opening of a methadone treatment program in Bangor, which launched a year of open public debate over the extent of the problem, and the appropriate ways to address it.  This discussion became a national debate.  Maine had been identified as the first state with a problem with Oxycontin abuse, but it was quickly followed by Kentucky, rural parts of Virginia, and West Virginia leading to the creation of the moniker “Hillbilly Heroin” for Oxycontin.  Recently Ohio and Florida have begun to experience similar outbreaks of Oxycontin abuse and its concomitant problems. 

The rural areas where abuse of Oxycontin began have a few things in common.  They are small communities where poverty and unemployment are high.   There is very little access to specialty medical care, and a high rate of chronic pain due to illness and injury.  The culture in these areas already supported the norm of heavy use of alcohol and an acceptance of intoxication.  All of these factors play into the rapid spread of prescription drug abuse.

Works Cited



[1] Ordway, Renee.  “Narcotics Abuse on Rise, Pharmaceutical Drug Fraud, Misuse Worry Officials.”  Bangor Daily News, Bangor, Maine (April 6, 2000).

[2] Mehren, Elizabeth.  “Hooks of  ‘Hillbilly Heroin’.”  Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, CA (October 4, 2001).

[3] Ordway.  “Narcotics Abuse on Rise …”

 

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