- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2001

The Drug Enforcement Administration could soon play a larger role in curbing the illegal use of the painkiller OxyContin, which has been implicated in hundreds of deaths and crime waves in Kentucky and Virginia.

Today, Congress will vote on a measure that would order the DEA to put more resources into combatting and restricting the widely abused drug, sometimes called "hillbilly heroin."

The measure, which is part of a $21.7 billion Justice Department spending bill, directs the DEA to submit a report to Congress no later than Nov. 1 that "outlines a coordinated strategy and distribution of resources for tackling the OxyContin problem," as well as other illicit drug use in rural areas. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, and Rep. Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican.

Mr. Wolf and other House members say they expect the legislation to pass easily; it was approved last week by the House Appropriations Committee and is part of a commerce, justice, state and the judiciary appropriations bill.

House Republican aides who have been working on the bill said the legislation is needed to address the drug problems in rural America.

"You just don't see their attention focused on it," one aide said of the DEA's efforts to stem OxyContin's illegal use.

Since 1997, OxyContin has been linked to 21 suicides and 43 deaths in Virginia and about 60 deaths in Kentucky.

The drug is made by Stamford, Conn.-based Purdue Pharma and brought in more than $600 million in revenue last year.

Though it's known as a wonder drug for cancer and chronic-pain patients, its heroin-like high has led to epidemic abuse in parts of rural Ohio, eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia.

"We're trying to get in on it early," Mr. Wolf said. "If people in Southwest Virginia area using it, what's to say it may not happen in urban areas?"

DEA spokeswoman Rogene Waite said her agency issued an action plan this spring but conceded "more needs to be done."

Ms. Waite said the DEA has also worked closely with local and state authorities, as well as with Purdue Pharma. She could not comment specifically on the congressional action, but said the DEA has taken the "unprecedented move of focusing on one brand-name drug, not a generic" kind of drug.

The drug comes in a pill form and when taken properly works as a time-release medication. But addicts chew the pill or grind it to snort or inject it. A 10-milligram pill costs about $1.25 if legally obtained with a prescription, but dealers can scalp that same pill for as much as $40.

Crime has shot up in places like the Appalachian town of Pulaski, Va., where police had 1,800 drug-related arrests in the last six months, most tied to OxyContin.

Purdue Pharma spokesman James W. Heins said his company has issued a 10-point action plan to help stop illegal use of the drug and is also working with local, state and federal law enforcement.

He also questioned the need for congressional action.

"Other prescription drugs have the same addictive properties, why go after this one? It's the drug du jour in the media," he said.

But Mr. Rogers said in Hazard, Ky., more than 65 percent of high school students have experimented with OxyContin.

"We're being swamped with illicit prescriptions of OxyContin. It's a phenomenon," he said.

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