is a synthetic, time-released pill similar to morphine, and its benefits have been widely praised by terminal cancer patients and others with severe and intractable pain. But the pills contain large amounts of the pure drug oxycodone, which abusers seek for its heroin-like high.
They crush the pills and then snort or inject them. Abuse of OxyContin has sparked what some authorities call an epidemic in several Appalachian states over the past few years, and the associated addictions and crime have migrated to suburban and urban areas.
OxyContin is a long-lasting version of oxycodone, a narcotic considered important therapy for many patients suffering chronic, moderate to severe pain from illnesses such as cancer. The tablet, when swallowed whole, provides 12 hours of relief.
OxyContin gave them better relief than they ever had before. But Purdue misrepresented the drug’s potential for abuse. Last month, the company and three of its executives pleaded guilty to federal charges that they misled doctors and patients. The company agreed to pay $600 million in fines; and the executives, a total of $34.5 million.
The pill’s time-release mechanism turned out to be easily circumvented by crushing the pill and snorting or injecting the resulting powder. By the late 1990s, OxyContin abuse was devastating small towns throughout Appalachia and rural New England. Pharmaceuticals, mainly opioids, are still widely abused — now more so than any illegal drug except marijuana.
In 2005, according to the government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 6.4 million Americans, many of them teenagers, had abused pharmaceuticals recently. Most got the drug from friends or family — often, in the case of teenagers, from their parents’ medicine cabinets.
Experts in pain treatment and drug abuse prevention say the growing use of long-acting pain killers like OxyContin, fentanyl and methadone has been a crucial factor in a nationwide epidemic of overdose deaths, largely from the abuse of such drugs.
OxyContin is the brand name of a time-release formula of oxycodone produced by the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma. It was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1995 and first introduced to the U.S. market in 1996. By 2001, OxyContin was the best-selling non-generic narcotic pain reliever in the U.S.; 2008 sales in the U.S. totaled $2.5 billion. An analysis of data from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration found that retail sales of oxycodone “jumped nearly six-fold between 1997 and 2005.”
OxyContin is available in 5 mg (blue) tablets in Canada, France, and the U.K.; 10 mg (white) in Canada, France, the U.S., and the U.K.; 15 mg (grey) in the U.S.; 20 mg (pink) in Canada, France, the U.S., and the U.K.; 30 mg (brown) in the U.S.; 40 mg (yellow) in Canada, France, the U.S., and the U.K.; 60 mg (red) in the U.S.; 80 mg (greenish blue) in Canada, France, the U.S., and the U.K.; and 160 mg (blue) in the U.S., and possibly Canada, and the U.K. In 2001, Purdue Pharma briefly suspended distribution of 160 mg tablets in the U.S. because of the “possibility of illicit use of tablets of such high strength.”