In the long and infamous history of the pharmaceutical industry, one of the all-time amazing achievements was pulled off in 1995 by a Stamford, Connecticut corporation known as Purdue Pharma. Somehow, this relatively unheralded drug company managed to convince the FDA to approve a prescription painkiller called Oxycontin for sale to the general public. This accomplishment was remarkable because Oxycontin is a powerful opiate, and just like any other opiate of similar strength, it causes feelings of euphoria in its users and is also highly addictive. Essentially, it is as if the government had suddenly decided to legalize heroin as a painkiller and had then turned it over to a pharmaceutical company to advertise and promote as aggressively as they pleased.
Such a thing of course would be unthinkable; and yet, somehow, despite all the chronically overheated rhetoric we constantly hear from the government about the “War on Drugs ,” a chemical that has qualities to rival some of the most addictive and dangerous illegal drugs on earth was approved for use against pain without any restriction whatsoever.
In the almost two decades since it was first introduced, Oxycontin has been a smashing success. It has generated billions of dollars in profits for Purdue Pharma, which has maintained its exclusive rights to manufacture this potent product. In part, this success is because Oxycontin works extremely well against moderate to severe chronic pain, and many who have used the drug enthusiastically praise its ability to ease their suffering.
But it is Oxycontin’s identity as a mind- and mood-altering substance that is really responsible for its meteoric rise in popularity. Purdue Pharma designed Oxycontin with a time-release formula to moderate the drug’s rate of delivery; however, it was quickly discovered that if the tablets were crushed or dissolved in water, the effects of an entire dosage could be experienced instantly by anyone snorting the powdered form or injecting the liquid form into the bloodstream.
Because of its success in the United States, Oxycontin was added to the list of approved drugs for health care coverage in Canada in 2000, and within a few years it became almost as frequently prescribed there as it has been here. But for Canadian health officials, twelve years has been more than enough, and they have now decided to ban Oxycontin  and remove it from all pharmacy shelves across the country. At least partially out of anticipation of what was about to happen in their second biggest market, Purdue Pharma had already decided to phase out Oxycontin and replace it with a new drug called OxyNeo, which contains the same ingredients but is supposed to be much harder to crush or dissolve. At this point, however, Canadian health authorities and insurers in most provinces are not planning to approve coverage for the new drug, since its ingredients are really not any different from those found in Oxycontin. OxyNeo will be available, but it appears anyone wanting to use it will need to pay for it themselves, and there will also be new restrictions in place that are supposed to make it much more difficult to obtain a prescription in the first place.
At the present time, there is no indication that the FDA is considering pulling Oxycontin from the market here in the U.S., but now that Canada has taken this action the terms of the debate have been permanently changed, and there is no telling how things may play out in the months and years ahead.
Walking the Fine Line between Pleasure and Pain
Since hitting the market, Oxycontin has been so over-prescribed that it has been as widely available and as easily obtained as any illegal street drug. In the case of prescription drug abuse, doctors are always a big part of the problem – unscrupulous doctors willing to do anything to make a buck, including giving out prescriptions for pharmaceuticals to anyone who asks for them, and doctors fooled by drug company propaganda into over-prescribing based on honest ignorance about the true dangers of the substances they are handing out like candy. While many of its users have no doubt benefited from Oxycontin’s unquestioned ability to reduce severe chronic pain, the illegal trade in this pharmaceutical is where the profit really is, and there is every reason to believe that the fine folks at Purdue Pharma have realized this almost right from the beginning . Sales people from the company were trained to make the hard pitch with general practitioners everywhere to convince them that this high-powered opiate was a perfectly wonderful remedy for anyone suffering from even mild pain, and included in the sales spiel that Purdue reps were pushed to make was a claim that Oxycontin was only addictive in about 1 percent of the people who took it. This is a blatant lie, and Purdue had the data to prove it from very early on, but they continued to push Oxycontin with an aggressive and effective marketing campaign that was the envy of street dealers everywhere.
Purdue’s recent announcement that they will replace Oxycontin with OxyNeo basically represents an admission that much of the money they have made since the late ‘90s by selling the original drug is the definition of ill-gotten gain. But this change is also largely a public relations gesture, since it is highly likely that industrious drug addicts will still find a way to crush or dissolve the new pills so they can be used and abused in a way that will deliver a more potent jolt. And even if they do not, it will still be possible to get heavy doses of the drug by simply taking several tablets at once.
It is important to note that most Oxycontin addicts started out using the drug exactly as prescribed for pain, and it was only after falling deeply into dependence that they began grinding or dissolving their pills so they could snort or inject the drug in larger and more potent doses. Ultimately, Oxycontin is a highly addictive drug no matter how it is ingested, and OxyNeo will be every bit as addictive because it contains the very same ingredients as its forerunner.
Falling Down the Black Hole of Addiction
But while all of this could be seen as an argument for a total ban on Oxycontin everywhere, and a vote of support for the actions of Canadian health officials, things are actually not quite so simple. Like heroin, what makes Oxycontin especially insidious is that its addictive qualities are so strong that it will cause overwhelming and terrible withdrawal symptoms when users are forced to quit cold turkey.
With their supplies of the drug suddenly cut off, Canadian addicts could suffer from a number of significant side effects associated with opiate withdrawal , including:
- Severe anxiety
- Clinical depression
- Muscle pain
- Panic attacks
- High fever
- Muscle weakness
- Flu-like symptoms
Experts in addiction are predicting that because Oxycontin is a drug primarily abused by those from lower socioeconomic classes who cannot afford to enter drug abuse treatment programs, many of those whose supplies are cut off will eventually turn to heroin, since for an addict one opiate is as good as any other. Crime rates will also likely go up, as OxyNeo will still be available in Canada even though it will no longer be covered by insurance, which means that some of those who cannot afford to buy it on their own will turn to robbery and theft in order to get their hands on the supplies they need to feed their habits.
Banning Oxycontin and reducing the use of its replacement OxyNeo by restricting access may ultimately prove to be a wise decision on the part of Canadian authorities. But doing it the way they are doing it, suddenly and without taking any steps to provide help to those who are addicted , is rash and even cruel, and is likely to lead to a new wave of drug crimes and heroin addiction. While there may be some drug addicts who are not necessarily deserving of our sympathy, most of those who have become addicted to Oxycontin are guilty of no other crime than listening to their doctors and taking a drug that was advertised as a totally safe cure for their pain. If indeed OxyNeo is eventually banned in the United States, or at least removed from all insurance plans, hopefully a way can be found to phase the drug out gradually so millions of addicts and users will not be sent spinning off into a self-destructive oblivion.
The most just and fair way to provide assistance to Oxycontin addicts, here or in Canada, would be to force Purdue Pharma to pay for as much rehabilitation and detox as they can afford – but of course there is no way that will ever happen. No matter how things turn out, in the end the executives and the biggest stockholders at Purdue will all be allowed to walk away rich and free; that is absolutely guaranteed.
©2012 Off the Grid News