||OxyContin a 'nuclear bomb': Police officer describes explosive growth
SOURCE: The Telegram
BYLINE: Will M. Hilliard
The Sonya Harvey story that made national headlines in recent months -- about a
young St. John's woman's fight against a chronic OxyContin addiction -- is one
RNC Const. Jason Sheppard is seeing played out time and again as more people
become hooked on the controversial painkiller.
"OxyContin is a nuclear bomb compared to other drugs -- I haven't seen
anything like this before," Sheppard told a group of nurses Friday during the
Association of Occupational Health Nurses of Newfoundland and Labrador
conference. "There is no fragment of society it doesn't touch."
And if government and the medical establishment doesn't crack down on the
rampant abuse of the prescription narcotic known on the street simply as "oxy",
Sheppard said, the situation could reach epidemic proportions.
He said the police's hands are tied. OxyContin is a government-regulated
pharmaceutical that can be obtained from any family physician and can be covered
He said the police are used to combating drug lords, not pharmaceutical
The tablets can be bought at a pharmacy for about $7 a pop, but on the street
are sold for up to $80 apiece.
Sheppard, a criminal intelligence officer assigned to monitor OxyContin abuse
last September following the deaths of two addicts, said this province has the
highest rate of OxyContin abuse in Canada. The province's chief medical
examiner, Dr. Simon Avis, has since linked OxyContin to seven deaths and the
drug is suspected in others.
Sheppard said it's the first big drug problem the province has ever had.
While heroin and crack cocaine do turn up from time to time in police raids,
Sheppard said they have not caught on here as in bigger cities -- partly because
of the risks of smuggling drugs to the island and the fact many people have seen
the devastation the drugs have caused elsewhere.
"This one came in the back door," he commented.
Sheppard estimated that 99.5 per cent of OxyContin tablets in circulation are
obtained from doctors. Some street users believe OxyContin is safer than drugs
like cocaine and heroin, which are often mixed with other chemicals.
Sheppard said the Newfoundland Medical Board must be given more power to deal
with doctors who prescribe too much OxyContin, as well as "unscrupulous" doctors
alleged to have traded the drug for sexual favours.
One study showed the number of doctors prescribing the drug to patients has
risen, resulting in about a 600 per cent increase in sales in Newfoundland of
OxyContin 40- and 80-milligram tablets, and about a 200 per cent increase in the
10- and 20-mg tablets.
Abusers are obtaining the drug through double-doctoring -- visiting more than
one doctor in an attempt to obtain multiple prescriptions. They're also forging
The delayed report of a task force, struck by the provincial government a few
months ago to recommend actions that should be taken to combat abuse, is
expected within weeks
Another concern, Sheppard said, is that given the pill's ubiquity and the
fact drug rehabilitation clinics in the province won't accept anyone who is
still under the influence of OxyContin -- they have be clean for six days before
they can be admitted -- addicts would rather continue taking the drug rather
than go cold turkey.
He said the withdrawal from OxyContin is said to be worst than withdrawal
Sheppard said users range in age from late-teens to their 60s. Emergency room
doctors have complained about being threatened by addicts demanding a fix.
Police say the spike in OxyContin abuse has also led to more break and entries
into homes and pharmacies. In some cases, armed robbers have held up pharmacies
demanding only OxyContin. Some pharmacies now have signs in the windows stating
they don't carry OxyContin.
"This speaks to the addiction," said Sheppard. "I know people here in this
city who are doing 10 or 12 (OxyContins) a day, one oxy-80 an hour. I know
people who have track marks from their elbows right to their wrists. Two years
ago you wouldn't find a track mark in the city, hardly."
He said the recovery centre in St. John's reported that in 2001 it hadn't
encountered a single case of OxyContin addiction. In 2002, the centre reported
35 people with the addiction. In 2003 it jumped to 100 cases.
He said cases are now being reported across the province.
The drug first hit the market in 1995, manufactured by Purdue Pharma of
Stamford, Conn., to treat cancer patients and others suffering from chronic
pain. Not long after stories of addiction began to surface in the northeastern
United States, first in small communities with large populations of unemployed
and people with disabilities.
In Cape Breton, police suspect 16 deaths in 1 1/2 years were related to
In an effort to battle OxyContin and other prescription drug abuse in Cape
Breton, a community task force has called for a computerized prescription
monitoring program, similar to the one which the Newfoundland government
launched with pharmacists as a pilot project. That project was cancelled after
government deemed it redundant and too expensive.
In a recent interview, Bernd Staeben, past-president of Canadian Pharmacists
Association, said the pilot project failed because doctors didn't want their
"This is something that we desperately need because this OxyContin business
and prescription drug abuse is rampant," Staeben said.