- The Washington Times - Friday, December 21, 2001

The Drug Enforcement Administration has targeted as a top priority the illegal use of the prescription painkiller OxyContin in the wake of what the agency says is a dramatic and dangerous increase in the drug's availability.
DEA Deputy Director Terrance W. Woodworth told The Washington Times that thousands of doses of the painkiller have been diverted illegally in the past two years and that a growing number of dealers, including organized-crime syndicates, are using forged, stolen, washed and altered prescriptions to sell the drug to willing buyers.
Mr. Woodworth described the illegal use of the drug as an "enormous problem that is consuming us" and said the DEA had not witnessed "a more rapid increase in the use of an illicit drug in 25 years."
"DEA has embarked upon a comprehensive action plan, focused largely on enforcement and regulatory investigations which target key points of diversion, including unscrupulous and unethical medical professionals, forged and fraudulent prescriptions, pharmacy theft and doctor shopping," he said.
"The agency has increased efforts to gather information to better define the scope of the problem," he said, adding that DEA agents have focused on OxyContin prescriptions, deaths, emergency-room mentions, thefts, treatment-program admissions and forensic-laboratory exhibits, as well as investigations and arrests.
Mr. Woodworth said the illegal use of OxyContin appears to have begun in Maine, but has since spread and is a serious problem in a dozen states, mostly in the East, including Maryland and Virginia, but also in Arizona and Louisiana.
He said the DEA has linked the painkiller which costs $1 a milligram on the street to nearly 300 overdose deaths in 31 states, although another 500 deaths may be related. He said the users include "all types of people," although those who have died generally have been 30 to 40 years of age.
Some members of Congress have been critical of Purdue Pharma Ltd., the firm that produces the painkiller, suggesting it has not done enough to prevent the drug's misuse.
Purdue Pharma officials said they have made an effort to reduce abuse, and the company recently said it would spend millions of dollars for medical-education programs in regions of the country most affected by OxyContin abuse. It also said it would develop tamper-resistant prescription pads, and drug-prevention and education programs, including public service announcements to run in high-abuse areas.
Mr. Woodworth said the firm had "begun to work with us" in the past several months, but he suggested Purdue Pharma needed to make a better effort to help stem rising abuse numbers.
"I think they need to take more ownership of this problem than they have in the past," he said.
OxyContin was introduced by Purdue Pharma in 1995 for use in treating chronic, moderate to severe pain for extended periods of time. A controlled-release formulation plays an important role in the management of pain where doses are limited to twice daily, rather than four to six times per day.
From the first full year of sales in 1996, Mr. Woodworth said, the number of OxyContin prescriptions has risen 18-fold, to approximately 5.8 million in 2000. He said the appeals of the drug are the larger amounts of the active ingredient oxycodone and the ability of users to compromise its controlled-release formulation.
"Simply crushing the tablet can negate the controlled-release effect of the drug, enabling abusers to swallow or snort the drug for a powerful morphinelike high," he said. "The tablet can also be crushed, mixed with water and injected."
The Controlled Substances Statute of 1970 charges the DEA with the prevention, detection and investigation of the diversion of controlled substances from legitimate channels.
Mr. Woodworth said the DEA does not intend to restrict the legitimate use of OxyContin, nor prevent doctors acting in the usual course of their practices from prescribing the painkiller.

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