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Police fear OxyContin will infect A-K streets

Chuck Biedka
| Sunday, March 4, 2001

NEW KENSINGTON: Four months ago, New Kensington Police Lt. Ron Zellers concentrated on crack, heroin and marijuana ar arrests.

Now OxyContin misuse is getting his attention, too. Misuse of Oxy or OC, as its called on the street, is a growing problem across the Northeast.

OxyContin is a prescription time-release pain medicine that is safe and effective when swallowed as intended. But it also can give a quick high when it's misused by grinding the tablet into a powder that is snorted or injected.

Unsanitary injections also cause a host of other problems ranging from infection to death.

With that in mind, attorney generals and others from four states attended a Richmond, Va., summit to discuss addiction to the prescription painkiller and resulting crime and deaths. Last month OC was the focus of a regional drug task force meeting in Butler.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher didn't attend the Richmond summit because he was addressing a budget hearing. However, Fisher said through a spokesman that the state will take part in a coordinating task force formed at the meeting. A statewide summit also is possible.

Zellers said police, prosecutors and drug educators should be targeting the illegal OxyContin trade because the drug is so addictive and its misuse often ends in death. Complicating matters is the high profit for selling it on the streets.

That can tempt people to sell their prescription or have the pills stolen by friends or family.

'Medicaid recipients can get 100 of the pills for about a $1 co-pay,' said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran. He said the drug is becoming popular in rural areas and deaths have occurred.

Dealers make big profits

In New Kensington, the drug sells for $15 to $25 for the smaller dosage pills, Zellers said. Westmoreland County detectives say a mid-size dosage is selling for $30 to $40 per pill.

Most Alle-Kiski Valley people with health insurance pay $10 or $20 to obtain 90 pills through prescription plans, Zeller said.

'This is just the beginning. It will be just like crack (cocaine) when it swept the Valley. Oxy is following in its footsteps,' said Zellers, who is a field supervisor for the regional task force.

'We don't want to demonize Oxy, but it can be dangerous,' said Bob Stephenson, a director at From A1



the federal Center for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.

Misused OxyContin can kill by slowing down breathing to a dangerous level. If used with alcohol, breathing can stop.

OxyContin misuse deaths have been reported in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland and elsewhere, Stephenson said.

Until one month ago, federal employment drug tests focused on heroin. Changes are being made to detect Oxy and similar drugs too, Stephenson said.

Physicians prescribe Oxy because it works for moderate to severe pain, said Dr. Eliott Cole, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pain Management.

Oxy is receiving a bad name like Tylenol when it was tampered with 20 some years ago, he said. 'The drug is good; it's the misuse,' the Nevada physician said.

He expects the misuse to continue because OxyContin is a schedule II medicine. Its use already is severely restricted, he said.

The problem is that people are dying, said Joe Fumalaro, U.S. Attorney for the southern district of Kentucky. He said 58 people have died from using the drug without a doctor's supervision.

Zellers said Oxy won't replace crack or heroin on the streets in the Alle-Kiski Valley. But a tremendous profit potential is enabling the drug to muscle its way onto the streets.

Zellers said drug awareness officers know about Oxy and will warn kids about it when they talk about illegal drugs.

More adults than adolescents are misusing Oxy in New Kensington, but that could change, Zeller said.

Young people are buying Oxy in the center of Westmoreland County.

Last month some Greensburg area high school students told their principal they were concerned about Oxy use there. The principal called the Comprehensive Abuse Service's main office at Greensburg. The company sent four counselors there within a week to meet with small groups of students, said Lou Conti, the company's clinical director.

Joe Bindas, a counselor for Comprehensive's New Kensington office, sees adults and children who have been hooked on Oxy.

'We've been seeing it the last year or so,' he said.

The office treats about 90 adults and 12 to 15 adolescents each month. Some are sent there by the court. Others ask for help.

'About one-third of the adults and some of the kids have been using Oxy,' Bindas said.

Stephenson said society should have been prepared for OxyContin misuse.

'Oxy is our second wake-up call. We saw it first with Ecstasy. Between 1998 and 2000 there was a 25-fold increase of Ecstasy found in military recruits. Somehow that wasn't communicated. Now we have Oxy,' Stephenson aid.

Chuck Biedka can be reached at cbiedka@tribweb.com

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