The Potent Perils Of a Miracle Drug

OxyContin is a leading treatment for chronic pain, but officials fear it may succeed crack cocaine on the street

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Not everyone agrees that OxyContin is problematic. Dr. David Haddox, senior medical director for Purdue Pharma, the drug's manufacturer, insists doctors are not overprescribing. But the company has a lot to lose if the controversy lingers and doctors take their patients off it. Last April the Wall Street Journal reported that OxyContin sales increased 95% in one year, generating $600 million in sales for Purdue Pharma. Indeed, the drug, introduced in 1995, has been hailed as a miracle; it eases chronic pain because its dissolvable coating allows a measured dose of the opiate oxycodone to be released into the bloodstream (see PERSONAL TIME: YOUR HEALTH). However, abusers quickly found that by smashing the pills, they can get all the drug's potency in a rush of euphoria.

Facing pressure from prosecutors, investigators and drug counselors, OxyContin's manufacturer has begun working with doctors to minimize forged prescriptions. In Maine the problems have caused a quandary for doctors. In 1999 the legislature passed new medical rules requiring doctors to treat pain more aggressively. Now Maine is the second largest consumer of OxyContin among all the states, and had 35 deaths from overdoses last year. "We haven't had a drug problem like this in the high schools in Maine until now," says U.S. Attorney Jay McCloskey, who is waging a war against the doctors who so readily write OxyContin prescriptions. "We've had people tell us if a doctor had just asked them to roll up their sleeve for a blood-pressure test, they would have seen the track marks."

--Reported by Elisabeth Kauffman/Nashville

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