Opinion Addressing The State’s OxyContin Epidemic

According to a recent survey conducted by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in 2002-2003, Massachusetts ranked third among the 50 states for illicit drug dependence or abuse, and had the highest rate in New England among those age 26 and older. 

To combat this epidemic, we are adding beds to rehab centers, increasing funding for preventive education, and looking into new, innovative programs like “sobriety high schools.” However, more must be done, and we should begin by banning OxyContin.

In 1996, Purdue Pharma introduced Oxycontin, a drug that contains oxycodone, which is twice as potent as morphine; its controlled-release mechanism allows for a pill containing a massive dose to be slowly absorbed over a period of 12 hours when taken correctly.

Purdue then began aggressively marketing OxyContin to physicians, many of whom were not trained in pain management, billing the drug as an effective treatment for moderate-to-severe chronic pain.

As a result, sales of OxyContin skyrocketed, reaching $1.3 billion in 2001, $1.5 billion in 2003. By 2001, OxyContin had become the most frequently prescribed narcotic for treating moderate to severe chronic pain.

At the same time, abuse of OxyContin also soared. People began chewing pills or crushing and snorting them, destroying the controlled-release mechanism and achieving a quick and profoundly effective high.

Oxycontin as an abused drug knows no age, gender, race, or socio-economic bounds. Pretty soon, it was everywhere — in our schools, workplaces, and homes.

Purdue’s response to this gathering threat was to give local law enforcement $1.7 million in grants, or .0005{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of its profits, and their public education campaign features posters for schools that make light of the problem with outrageous messages like “Scalding hot bacon fat should not be used as after shave, and explosive diarrhea caused by prescription drug abuse ruins pants.”

Evidently, Purdue Pharma is unwilling to take this problem seriously.

After reaping billions from us, Purdue has left us with a monumental societal problem; an epidemic of addiction. Those who thought they could try OxyContin recreationally ended up alienated, addicted, homeless, in jail, sick, or even dead. OxyContin is also a direct pathway to heroin abuse.

With pills costing $80 each on the street, an OxyContin addiction is often too expensive to sustain. However, at $4 per bag, heroin costs less than a pack of cigarettes.

Because today’s heroin is significantly purer than it was 10 years ago, it can be ingested, sniffed, smoked, or injected via a needle, making it a versatile alternative. Heroin even comes in bags decorated with cartoon characters such as Elmo or Batman — packaging focused blatantly at kids.

No one would argue that OxyContin has no benefit to society; it is an effective addition to medicines currently used to treat chjronic pain. However, public policy is about maintaining balance and right now, the burden that OxyContin places on families in the Commonwealth clearly outweighs its benefit.

As the Senate chair of the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee, I am focused on finding ways to stem the tide of opiate abuse. Accordingly, I have filed legislation to ban OxyContin in Massachusetts. The legislation provokes strong feelings from all sides.

But I believe we have a responsibility to the children, families, and communities of the Commonwealth to protect them from harm and confront the substance abuse epidemic that is sweeping the state.

Both the profits and the horrors of OxyContin may soon be eclipsed, however. Purdue Pharma has just received FDA approval for a new drug called Palladone. Whereas OxyContin is a 12-hour time-release drug, Palladone is a morphine-based narcotic so potent that it is taken only once every 24 hours.

It appears that Purdue Pharma is prepared to release yet another epidemic.

Steven A. Tolman is a state senator from the 2nd Suffolk and Middlesex District