He knew what the pills were: OxyContin, a powerful pain-killer. In addition, he knew what they could do when abused: Turn you numb, so numb you felt you weren’t there.
He had taken some in school. His friends said they knew when he was high on them — his head shook in small circles as he sat in class. Then, he felt warm and cold at the same time, like his arm recovering from falling asleep. And detached. There, but not there. He had just swallowed 10 of them.
It was last September, and he was distraught over breaking up with his girlfriend. Therefore, he stood in a bathroom at Palmyra Area High School, holding eight more. Another student had sold them to him. He put them in his mouth and washed them down with Mountain Dew.
He wanted to be numb.
A teacher found him in the hall and was suspicious. “My stomach hurts,” he told the teacher, “and I have a massive headache.” The teacher called for an administrator, who was taking him to the nurse’s office when a plastic bottle the 16-year-old had stuck in the belt loop of his pants fell to the floor. It contained two pills he hadn’t taken.
They took him to the principal’s office, where he passed out. He doesn’t remember the ambulance ride to the hospital, or parts of the last four years riddled with drug abuse. But he does remember popping OxyContin at school.
“Before school, after school, at school,” said the teen, now in Gaudenzia’s Chambers Hill Adolescent Program, a Swatara Twp. drug treatment program.
Teachers seemed to fluctuate between suspicion — he was failing courses — and denial about his drug abuse, he said. If they asked him in class if he was OK, he would answer, “I’m fine. There’s nothing wrong with me,” and that usually was it.
“They might have suspected, but in their head, they probably didn’t,” he said.
Marijuana and cocaine are still the drugs of choice among teens in central Pennsylvania, but OxyContin has emerged since it was introduced to the medical world in 1995 and has become a bridge to heroin, authorities said.
Last week, parents of Central Dauphin High School students who are undergoing treatment for heroin addiction alleged that students use drugs in school. Administrators announced several initiatives, including visits by drug-sniffing police dogs, to battle drug use among students.
A quick high
When it’s chewed or mashed and snorted, OxyContin, an opium-based analgesic intended to ease the severe pain over 12 hours, produces a sudden, powerful high similar to heroin, authorities said.
“All you do is bite it, and you go to the moon,” said Dr. Clifford A. Bernstein, a California practitioner of the Waismann method, a rapid detoxification program for people addicted to opiates.
Abusers often turn to heroin, which is much cheaper than the $20 to $40 street price of one OxyContin tablet, because it delivers the same kind of high, authorities said.
“A lot of kids who use heroin started with Oxy,” said Robin Rothermel, director of the state Department of Health’s Division of Treatment. Today’s heroin is purer, making it more addictive, Rothermel said.
OxyContin was recently mentioned on Fox’s TV show “The OC,” a series about teens in Southern California, proof that it has become glamorous, Bernstein said.
“It’s really become a cultural icon,” he said. “It’s the drug of the decade. You can act intelligently. You’re not acting drunk or noticeably high. And you don’t have a hangover. It’s a nice, clean drug to abuse.”
Reports of OxyContin abuse began surfacing in 2000 in the Appalachian Mountain region, a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office said. The drug picked up the nickname “hillbilly heroin.”
Its abuse spread nationally as it became more available. The number of prescriptions for it jumped from about 925,000 in 1997 to more than 7 million in 2002, and sales of the drug by its maker, Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma, topped $1.5 billion, the report said.
‘I ask myself why I did it’
In the mid-state, there are signs that OxyContin has become a desirable drug:
- Burglars have broken into several pharmacies in the Carlisle area and stolen OxyContin and Vicodin, another pain-killer, according to borough and state police.
- An 18-year-old robbed a pharmacy at gunpoint in McAdoo, Schuylkill County, in October and made off with $7,000 worth of OxyContin, police said.
- A cleaning woman was charged in July with taking 40 OxyContin pills from a home of an elderly client in Mount Holly Springs
One former student at Central Dauphin High School said he bought OxyContin for $30 a pill, crushed the pills in a school bathroom and snorted them between classes.
Two years ago, he sat in the corner of the cafeteria, mashed an OxyContin between the pages of a textbook and snorted it, undetected.
“There are so many people in there,” said the former student, now a 19-year-old recovering addict who quit school. “And the people I was sitting with didn’t care that I was doing it, so why not?
“Now that I am sober, I ask myself why I did it,” said the former student, who has recently completed a rehabilitation program and asked that his name not be used. “I wish I had never touched the stuff.”
OxyContin is Easy to Get
Teens can buy the pills on the street, or from friends whose parents have gotten prescriptions for pain relief, authorities said.
It’s also easy to buy OxyContin and other prescription drugs on the Internet from websites that don’t require doctor’s prescriptions or offer free online “consultations” with physicians. All you need is a credit card.
One website offers “fast, private and confidential service” from a pharmacy in Mexico and boasts that “no prior prescription is required.”
Robert Smith said that his daughter, a Central Dauphin student, is undergoing treatment for heroin addiction and that her acquaintances would order OxyContin on the Internet and have it delivered by a next-day service to a neighbor’s address. They would skip school and wait for the delivery truck.
Smith said he found evidence on her computer that “she was ready to do that.”
Purdue Pharma has put warning labels on OxyContin bottles that tell consumers that crushing pills can lead to “a potentially fatal dose”. The DEA has verified 146 deaths nationwide involving OxyContin in 2000 and 2001, according to the GAO report.
It has also given $2 million to Florida to devise a “doctor shopping” prevention system; That is visiting two or more physicians to obtain additional prescriptions of pain-killers such as OxyContin.
Parents should try to do more with their children to see if they notice any signs of drug use, said Karen Thomas, Gaudenzia’s Chambers Hill program director.
“Sometimes the work schedule, the PlayStation, Xbox, and television have taken over our kids’ world, and it keeps them out of the way. We really don’t know what they’re doing in their room,” Thomas said. “You have to actually say, ‘Let’s eat together. Let’s do this.’ You have to initiate things.”
JIM LEWIS: 255-8266 or [email protected] GARRY LENTON: 255-8264 or [email protected]