More than six arrests have been made since March in Lawrence County.
BY MARY GRZEBIENIAK
NEW CASTLE -- Imagine pain so severe that normal life is impossible. Then the Food and Drug Administration approves a drug that offers relief.
The drug, however, is so attractive to abusers and addicts that by 2001, doctors hesitate to prescribe it. The local pharmacy will no longer stock it. People start looking funny at those who say they take it.
OxyContin, a godsend to chronic pain sufferers, has triggered such abuse that Vermont officials announced this week that state will no longer pay for the drug for welfare recipients. Other states already restrict the drug's distribution.
In this region, illegal sales of OxyContin and robberies to obtain the drug have been reported in Lawrence, Mahoning and Trumbull counties.
In fact, this powerful narcotic is causing enough problems locally that Lawrence County District Attorney Matt Mangino is conducting a series of informational sessions to educate the public, health providers, law enforcement officials and educators.
About 30 people attended one aimed at the general public Wednesday night in the New Castle Public Library.
Arrests: Mangino said that although Lawrence County is not considered one of the more seriously affected, there have been more than six arrests of people dealing the drug since March. Among them were a 69-year-old woman and two business owners dealing out of a storefront.
And in one Lawrence County hospital, a video camera caught a worker who was changing light bulbs stealing the drug off the pharmacy shelf, according to Cathy Laudermilch, a narcotics agent with the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, which tracks delivery and handling of controlled drugs to hospitals and pharmacies.
For terminal cancer patients and those suffering with arthritis and other painful conditions, OxyContin's time-released relief can mean regaining a normal life, or just being able to sleep through the night, Loudermilch said.
Drug abuse: Unfortunately, abusers quickly learned that if the 12-hour pills are crushed or simply chewed, the entire drug effect takes place immediately, resulting in a "high. "When taken along with alcohol or other drugs, death can occur.
She said abuse of the drug resulted in at least 43 deaths last year.
Easier to obtain than heroin, cocaine or other drugs because its medical use, the drug gets into addicts' hands through robbery, theft, shoplifting, smuggling from Canada or Mexico or fraud by health-care workers.
Difficult prescription: That same abuse makes obtaining the drug more difficult, even legitimately.
Pamela Bennett, a pain management nurse and director of advocacy for Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of OxyContin, told the group she gets calls every day from patients having a hard time getting the drug.
Dr. Frank Kunkel, an anesthesiologist and operator of a pain management center in Cranberry Township, said drugs such as OxyContin allow chronic pain sufferers to function normally, but its abuse affects physicians' willingness to prescribe it.
"All around I see physicians who shy away from pain patients who need to be treated," he said.
One man told the group he had been to four physicians before obtaining relief from his chronic pain. A woman in the audience said some physicians prescribe OxyContin for carpal tunnel and headaches, neither of which is severe enough to meet the standard for prescribing it.
Bennett said the FDA standard is "moderate to severe pain lasting for an extended period" where use of narcotic pain-relieving drugs is indicated.
Kunkel said studies have shown that less than 1 percent of chronic pain patients become addicted to narcotics. Loudermilch agreed that the drugs work on the brain of patients with severe pain differently and do not give them the euphoric feeling that the addict experiences.
Steps taken: Bennett said her company's goals are the same as law enforcement's -- to keep the drug out of criminals' hands, "but we should not allow patients to suffer because of criminal activity."
Bennett demonstrated tamper-resistant prescription pads that are being distributed free to physicians, part of a 10-point plan by Purdue Pharma to reduce abuse of the drug.
She also demonstrated a new program developed by her company that uses crude humor to discourage prescription drug abuse by youth.
Mangino said his office has also launched a local program to discourage drug abuse among youth.
He commented that a promising new prescription monitoring system is being introduced in Kentucky which identifies those who go from physician to physician to obtain numerous prescriptions for illegal drugs.