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A Painkiller’s Double Life as an Illegal Street Drug

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by Caryn James
In a scene of creepy voyeurism and joltingly effective reporting, a 22-year-old named Troy Swett, who looks like any middle-class college student in a red sweatshirt and baseball cap, sits in his messy apartment in Maine and prepares to stick a needle in his arm as the cameras watch. ”I’m ashamed of it,” he tells Harold Dow, the CBS reporter sitting next to him as he crushes a pill, cooks it up in a spoon and ties off his arm.
Later, as Mr. Swett travels to California for a rapid detox treatment that promises to cure him in hours after four years of addiction, CBS gives him a video camera so he can tape himself preparing his syringe in an airport bathroom.
His is by far the most compelling story in tonight’s ”48 Hours: Addicted,” about OxyContin, a prescription painkiller that contains a synthetic opium and that has become a sometimes lethal street drug. The program is revealing about the drug’s abuse and also about the voyeuristic element of journalism.
An even more viscerally unsettling companion report about the epidemic of OxyContin abuse is on MTV’s ”True Life” series tomorrow, in a program far better than its lurid title, ”I’m Hooked on OxyContin.”
The linked reports are the result of corporate synergy — both CBS and MTV are part of Viacom — and both follow Mr. Swett’s story while offering different examples of others who use OxyContin, legally and effectively for pain and illegally as a recreational drug. When it is not focused on Mr. Swett, ”48 Hours” uses a familiar formula of network newsmagazines while MTV offers a more intimate, jarring view. But these stylistic differences pale next to the gripping personal stories about how quickly OxyContin, a pill that came on the market in 1996 has ruined so many lives.
The Troy Swett story is dramatic because ”48 Hours” follows it as it happens. We see how easily the drug is abused, because its time-release coating is destroyed when the pill is ground up. Someone who chews or shoots it gets all the drug at once, creating a high similar to that of heroin.
Mr. Swett’s mother pays $9,800 for his detox treatment, and also pays for the OxyContin that the treatment center has told him to keep using in the 10 days before he goes to California, to prevent withdrawal before arrives. We observe him in a hospital bed, sedated so he will not be aware of what we see: his body twitches as it goes through withdrawal.
His story is stretched out over the program’s hour, with other examples interspersed. Those cases offer essential information, but have the flat quality of news features churned out by rote.
One woman is pleased with the way OxyContin manages her pain, but there has been such a rash of robberies at pharmacies dispensing it that she is afraid of being mugged in the parking lot. Another woman says she took the drug as prescribed after surgery and became addicted. And a representative of the drug’s manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, says OxyContin is not addictive when used properly. The company is working on a way to make the time-release element tougher to destroy, but that is several years away.
The program is hard on the drug company, but remarkably easy on the detox center. Mr. Swett’s doctor is asked, but not pressed, about the risks of treating addiction as a physical problem, with only limited psychological help. The MTV program adds to that issue, reporting that 32 percent of rapid detox patients return to drugs within a year.
”I’m Hooked on OxyContin” also takes a closer look at young people who abuse the drug and why: it loosens them up at parties, it seems easy to control. In fact, it can be lethal when combined with alcohol or other drugs and is thought to have caused at least 280 deaths in the last two years. In the working-class neighborhood of Fishtown, in Philadelphia, a group of friends kept using OxyContin even after Lauren, 18, died after using it. A month later Eddie, also 18, died the same way. As Lauren and Eddie’s friends and family remember what happened, the program’s close-up camera work and quick-cut editing eliminate the sterile reportorial distance of more traditional programs.
Both programs return to Mr. Swett two months after his treatment. He is still clean, but does not have much of a life. He lives with his mother, works as a laborer, avoids his old drug-using friends. We are left with the insoluble question of how much the camera’s presence affects its subjects’ behavior and the thorny issue of how reporters, subjects and viewers become complicit in shattering that subject’s privacy. Mr. Swett has made a valuable drama possible by letting cameras enter his life, even as those cameras make intruders of us all.
© MMI, The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.

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