DEA believes more should be done to curb abuse of the painkiller
Legitimate patients fear drug might be recalled
Some are concerned that news coverage actually is contributing to the problem by alerting potential drug users about a new high to seek.
By LAURENCE HAMMACK
THE ROANOKE TIMES
The 13 steps that lead to Gary Kennedy's second-story bedroom would be murder without the little beige pills he takes twice a day.
"Without OxyContin, I would be in a nursing home," he said.
Kennedy, a 54-year-old retired Army sergeant major with a bad back and hip, says the controversy over fatal overdoses and crime associated with OxyContin abuse have made doctors reluctant to prescribe the drug to legitimate patients like himself.
Although he needs the drug to live a normal life in his Norton home, Kennedy says he must drive 100 miles round-trip to Kingsport, Tenn., just to find a doctor willing to dispense the powerful painkiller.
The Drug Enforcement Administration is asking the company that makes OxyContin to consider cutting back on the way it markets and distributes the drug. And a Lee County group has launched a petition drive calling for a recall.
If that happens, Kennedy said, he would be tempted to buy OxyContin illegally.
"If I take no medication, it is a constant, killer pain," he said. "It hurts you so bad you want to roll in the floor."
Rogene Waite, a spokeswoman for the DEA, said the agency does not support a total recall of OxyContin, even though it believes more should be done to curb abuse of the drug.
Purdue Pharma, which sold more than $1 billion worth of OxyContin last year, says that tens of thousands of people like Kennedy are being made to suffer needlessly. The company says that fear about what criminals do with its drug is overriding sound medical practice.
"That's just wrong," company spokesman James Heins said.
The company - which has announced a plan of action to fight OxyContin abuse while pledging to keep providing it to the public - has complained that inaccurate and often exaggerated media accounts are part of the problem.
In recent months, the story has played out everywhere from community newspapers to the cover of Newsweek. The number of fatal overdoses attributed to OxyContin - reported to be more than 200 nationwide - is one thing Purdue Pharma takes issue with.
Blood tests taken during autopsies can determine only if a death was caused by oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin and other drugs. Because OxyContin accounts for just 25 percent of the prescriptions written for oxycodone-based medicines, Purdue Pharma says, it's inaccurate to blame it for all the overdoses.
But Dr. William Massello of the Medical Examiner's office in Roanoke said additional evidence collected by authorities suggests that OxyContin was involved in many of the 37 oxycodone-related overdoses in far Southwest Virginia since 1998.
In addition, Massello's office reports there were no fatal oxycodone overdoses in far Southwest Virginia in the six years before 1995, the year OxyContin was approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Still, many people who depend on OxyContin say it is getting a bad rap.
Loretta Johnson, a 66-year-old Tazewell County resident, said she used the drug in 1999 with good results after she broke her back in a car accident.
"I realize it's a dreadful problem and that people have died and are dying because of it," she said. "But the drug is not the problem. It's just like guns. The gun is not to blame, it's the use of it."
Johnson said she is concerned that news coverage actually is contributing to the problem by alerting potential drug users about a new high to seek.
"You can't ignore word of mouth," said Waite of the DEA. "There's a buzz about it, and that's attractive to abusers."
LAURENCE HAMMACK can be reached at 981-3239 or firstname.lastname@example.org