Wednesday, October 24, 2001

DEA joins Oxy coalition

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The federal agency best known for slowing the flow of drugs has signed on to a coalition to make sure a powerful painkiller gets only into the right hands.

        The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on Tuesday announced it is joining a coalition of 21 pain and health organizations calling for more awareness and education about OxyContin, a legal pain medication that, in the past year, has prompted arrests, illegal peddling and deadly addictions.

        “The DEA policies are not at odds with legal pain treatment. We are all at this table on one side. We're making sure there's adequate pain medication. We're also on the same side of responsibility whenever it comes to avoiding the abuse of pain medication,” said Asa Hutchinson, the agency's chief administrator, speaking before pharmacists, physicians and journalists at the National Press Club.

        In Kentucky, where cancer rates and work-related accident injury rates are among the highest in the nation, the drug is widely needed and widely abused.

        Mr. Hutchinson said he has received letters describing “chronic intractable pain” from people who rely on pain medication such as OxyContin.

        But, he said, 50 to 90 percent of new patients in treatment programs in Kentucky report that OxyContin is their primary addiction.

        “Education always helps law enforcement. We're all acknowledging that we all have to do a better job in terms of education. (But) we're not going to slack off. We will do our job.”

        Last Acts, an organization that works to improve end-of-life care, sponsored the event.

        “Pain is a very serious problem in the United States, as is drug abuse. We share a responsibility,” said Karen Kaplan, moderator and Last Acts' program director. About 60 million people across the nation suffer from chronic pain, many of them in the final stages of terminal cancer. OxyContin was approved by the FDA in 1996. This year, media reports of abuse began surfacing in Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.

        In February, federal law enforcement officials arrested 200 people in eastern Kentucky. It was the state's largest drug bust ever.

        “There is an epidemic of chronic pain in the U.S. (But) we have to recognize that (pain medications) are not a panacea,” said Dr. Russell K. Portenoy at the Last Acts event.

        The stigma that has become attached to OxyContin has some pharmacists fearful of distributing it for legal reasons and fearful of stocking it for security reasons. These fears have become another way the medication has become difficult for pain patients to obtain.


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