And kids are trying it
For Jenni Walter, Friday night starts with a phone call. “I ask my friend for 50, sometimes 75. I meet him on a street near my house. And I’m ready to go,” she said. Twenty-year-old Walter gets her fix — a handful of OxyContin pills — once a week on Fridays. But she gets high every day. Walter would try to get the pills on Monday instead, to stave off the temptation to overuse on the weekend. But money doesn’t come in from her part-time job until the end of the week. And by that time, her supply is dangerously low.
“I tried to get off it once, but it felt like my body was shutting down. Like I was going to die,” Walter said. “I have to use in order to stay alive.” OxyContin, a time-released form of the opium derivative oxycodone, is back in vogue. A year ago, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay made national headlines when he admitted to using OxyContin in addition to other narcotics. Meantime, popularity of the drug increased as people realized that it gives the same kind of high as heroin — without those pesky track marks. Now with MTV celebrity Jack Osbourne’s public announcement of his addiction to Oxy and his effort to get clean, drug enforcement officials fear that Oxy abuse may proliferate. “Oxy is the new celebrity drug — again,” said Gary Ashenfelter, an agent with the Indiana Drug Enforcement Agency. “We’ve got Oxy bandits running around trying to steal what they can get, and we’ve got kids literally dying to take it. Indiana has a real problem here.” OxyContin is a slow-release painkiller and doctors prescribe it for people suffering from intense back pain, arthritis or complications resulting from cancer. Oxy works because the active ingredient, oxycodone, is concentrated at levels of 80 mg or above. Other typical prescription painkillers, such as Percocet and Percodan, contain a paltry 2 to 5 mg of oxycodone. When the Food and Drug Administration approved OxyContin in 1995, it required drug maker Purdue Pharma to manufacture Oxy in a time-release formula. More than 1 million people depend on their one dose of Oxy every 12 hours to dull life-threatening pain. But for Walter and her friends, waiting 12 hours for the oxycodone to fully release is too long. After Walter meets her friend and scores a bag of Oxy, she drives back home. She sets five or six pills on top of a pocket mirror and uses the back of a spoon to crush the Oxy down. Pulverizing it eliminates the time-release property. All those milligrams flood her blood stream at once. Sometimes Walter mixes the powder with some tap water and injects it. But it isn’t easy to find needles. She chewed on a few Oxys once, swigging vodka to wash them down. That took too long, delaying the high. So lately, she and her friends are snorting it like cocaine. One snort and … euphoria. First comes the rush. Then the lightness, the feeling of buoyancy. Then a thousand warm sensations and an awakening into bliss. “What is the opposite of pain?” Walter rhetorically asked. “Think of the most intense pain you’ve ever experienced and reverse that. It feels that good.” Walter said that she goes through a dozen Oxys a day, sometimes more on the weekends. She admits that she’s addicted, and that it happened fast. “I was just out, and my friend took some from home,” she said. “We tried one each. That was four weeks ago.” Oxy isn’t difficult to find. It doesn’t travel some mysterious route between Central America and Central Indiana. Oxy moves from the manufacturer to pharmacies around the country. Dealers find enterprising doctors willing to write fake scripts. One Indiana doctor was indicted last year for writing $1 million in fraudulent prescriptions. Some people try to get their own stash by swiping blank scripts during check-ups while a nurse looks away. They copy down a prescription for the pills and try to get it filled. Pharmacies are now an easy target since most stock Oxy. So far, more than 50 Oxy robberies have been reported in Northern Indiana, according to Lake and Porter County law enforcement officials. Oxy has now been linked to more than 200 deaths nationwide, according to the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, a pharmaceutical watchdog. The Indiana DEA did not know the number of Oxy users in Indiana, but it is now collecting data on Oxy proliferation. Ashenfelter said that he suspects that more people use the drug now than did two years ago. “We’re working on a statewide survey on OxyContin now,” Ashenfelter said. “We definitely don’t see Oxy on the decline. The hundred dollar question is why kids want to take it.” For many kids in rural Indiana, the answer is simple: boredom. “Look, there isn’t anything else to do,” said 17-year-old Shannon Walker. Walker said that her friends, who live in Kokomo, use Oxy because it’s “better than sitting around watching TV.” “We can go to a restaurant and eat. Or we can drive around. The middle of Indiana isn’t a very fun place to grow up,” Walker said. “People get bored, so they use drugs.” “Oxy is so easy to get,” said 18-year-old Linda Smith, who lives in Kokomo. “Last year, everyone did other stuff, but now everyone wants Oxy.” It used to be that marijuana and alcohol were popular. But when rumors spread that the high was just like morphine, Oxy became the drug of choice, Smith said. “We heard that Oxy is the same as morphine, which is a narc,” she said. “For a lot of people, heroin has this image of being scary and kind of dirty. Morphine is old school and cleaner, but it’s impossible for people to get. Oxy is the next best thing. And it’s only $5 a pill.” Oxy may start out being a cheap thrill on the weekend, but for many it quickly turns into a very expensive, uncontrollable habit. “It doesn’t take much,” said Indianapolis-based psychotherapist Michael Dettner. “It starts out with one or two pills. But the body becomes acclimated to the high very quickly, so the user needs more. There was one man who wound up spending $800 a day, ingesting dozens of pills. It’s that addictive.” And it’s that dangerous. By crushing Oxy and taking far more than what doctors prescribe can easily cause death. Oxy slows down respiration and dampens the central nervous system. Taking the correct dosage dulls pain. Taking more than that can slow the heart’s beating and the lungs aspirating until everything just stops. “My cousin used Oxy every day in excess,” Walker said. “Then one night, he just took one pill and fell asleep. It was just one that set him over. He never woke up.” Even so, a day without Oxy is a day in hell for many who abuse it. Withdrawal sets in immediately. Cold sweats. Seizures. Aches everywhere. Loss of bowels. Loss of consciousness. And Oxy isn’t just a problem for the people who abuse it when supplies run thin. In July, a 23-year-old West Virginia woman was charged with intent to sell her toddler son for $500 so she could buy Oxy. Some, desperate for the drug, scan the obituaries every day looking for someone who died of a painful disease — then they break into the house, scavenging through bathroom drawers. “I see people with addictions to drugs,” Dettner said. “Oxy is a real problem in Indiana, there’s no question. At first, people experiment. But Oxy is so potent and the addiction happens so fast. The prognosis for recovery is not very good. Treatment is controversial — an anesthesiologist sedates patients for 72 hours in some cases because the withdrawal is so painful.” Dettner said that although Oxy abuse is real, it does have a place in some medicine cabinets. “Some people are in so much pain they need Oxy. If it’s used by specialists with great caution, it can be life-saving for some people,” he said. “Some pharmacies will call doctors if they get a script to verify that it’s a valid prescription. So there are some preventative measures.” For now, Jenni Walter said she’ll keep using. “I’ll be able to stop if I need to, like if I start needing to take more than I can afford to buy. But I’d never give any Oxy to someone who hasn’t used it before. I wouldn’t want my friends to start using it.”