Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Critics seek new OxyContin curbs

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

        HAZARD — Pharmacists call OxyContin a painkiller. Cindy Fugate disagrees, the pain still sharp after her mother's death from OxyContin abuse.

        “I catch myself wanting to talk to her, but I can't,” the 16-year-old said, referring to her mother's overdose of OxyContin, the prescription pills that authorities say have become the drug of choice among addicts.

        Norma Ratliff knows the pain too: Her son was shot to death by two men who rifled through his pockets looking for OxyContin.

        Franklin McIntosh was jailed after robbing a bank to fund his OxyContin addiction.

        “Once they get hold of you, you do anything it takes to get more,” says Mr. McIntosh, 46, a former motorcycle shop service manager.

        Concern is being voiced in several states as more illicit drug users discover Oxycontin, a synthetic morphine used to treat moderate to severe pain, mainly among cancer patients.

        The prescription drug is more popular than cocaine or heroin because it produces a high that is more euphoric than other narcotics, said Kentucky prosecutor Joseph Famularo.

        Illicit users grind up the tablets and snort the powder, or mix it with water and inject it like heroin.

        In addition to a spate of deaths, authorities report an accompanying increase in crime, such as robberies of pharmacies, residential burglaries and bank heists, as users steal to feed their addictions.

        Kentucky police in February arrested more than 200 people in a single day on OxyContin-related charges.

        Officials from five states and the federal government met with the drug's manufacturer, Purdue Pharma of Stamford, Conn., this month to discuss solutions.

        “We want to do everything we can to make sure this medicine is used for patients for whom it is appropriate and that it is not given to those who don't need it or who would abuse it,” said Dr. J. David Haddox, senior medical director for health policy at Purdue Pharma.

        While the company maintains the drug is safe when used properly under physician supervision, it's planning programs to educate health care providers about prescription drug abuse, and inform doctors about tamper-resistant prescription pads.

        Critics say the preventive measures don't go far enough. A Virginia physician is circulating a national petition to ban OxyContin, even though he recognizes the benefits for patients with chronic pain.

        “By light years, the harm outweighs the benefits,” said Dr. Art Van Zee of the St. Charles Community Health Clinic.

        Dr. Van Zee has the support of relatives like Cindy Fugate, who awoke to a 2:30 a.m. phone call and was told her mother had died.

        “I just dropped the phone and started crying,” Cindy said.

        Her mother, Sandra Fugate Riddle, was at a roadside motel shooting up with friends when she died. Her family isn't sure how long she had been abusing the drug. But they say Ms. Riddle, once a caring single parent, had distanced herself as she became more deeply involved the underground drug community in the months before her death.

        Cindy now lives with her aunt. Her 14- and 13-year-old brothers are wards of the state.

        “I stay depressed,” Cindy said. “I just don't really think about much other than wanting her back.”

        Ms. Ratliff's 27-year-old son, Chad, was shooting OxyContin with two men when they got into an argument over a drug debt.

        Prosecutor Elizabeth Graham said Chad Ratliff was shot in the head and his pockets were then pilfered for OxyContin.

        Ms. Ratliff blames both the men and the drug for her son's death. “How many more people are going to have to die?” she said.


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