OxyContin taking a toll in Sonoma County
In this image released by Santa Rosa police, a pharmacy worker is shown handing over bottles of Oxycontin to a robber who threatened the worker during a midnight New Year's Eve robbery at a Santa Rosa Walgreens.
A masked man carrying a knife walked into a Kelseyville pharmacy in late February and demanded bottles of a prescription painkiller.
It was one of five pharmacy robberies or attempted robberies in Sonoma and Lake counties since the start of the year, including a Feb. 26 holdup when a gunman took 200 pills from a Cloverdale pharmacy.
“I'm desperate. I have a gun,” said the note he passed to the clerk.
In each case the robbers sought the same thing, the prescription drug OxyContin.
“It's a huge epidemic,” said Police Sgt. Eric Litchfield, who supervises Santa Rosa's narcotics investigations. “We could work Oxy cases 24-7.”
The opiate-based painkiller can be far more addictive than Vicodin and now joins marijuana and methamphetamine as the drugs battled most by Santa Rosa and other law enforcement agencies.
Illegal use of the narcotic began on the East Coast, and and by 2004 West Coast narcotics officers were being warned OxyContin was the next major epidemic, Litchfield said. The problem has been building since.
“When it came, it came on strong,” Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver said.
“We were shocked at the number of young people who were involved in the use or distribution of Oxy,” he said.
OxyContin, made by Purdue Pharma, is a time-released version of Oxycodone, a synthetic heroin of sorts similar to morphine and prescribed by doctors for severe pain relief.
Abusers may know it by its street names, “hillbilly heroin,” “Ox,” “Oxy,” “Oxycotton,” “kicker” and “OC” a a drug with a street value of $40 to $45 a pill and sought on high school and college campuses. It's also become a drug of choice for the middle class.
A typical scenario in Santa Rose starts with a middle-aged or older person who gets the drug for a legitimate injury, Litchfield said.
They're typically given OxyContin along with an anti-anxiety drug and Vicodin, he said.
“They will not need all these medications. They sell as many of the Oxys as they can part with,” he said, noting buyers are often ages 16 to 25.
The next month they get their prescription refilled.
April Denton of Santa Rosa for years was taking prescription drugs for a back injury and had legally obtained her drugs.
The 52-year-old disabled woman, not your typical drug dealer, was selling some of her pills to augment her income, said Bob Waner, a Sonoma County prosecutor.
She eventually sold drugs to John Wayne, 35, of Sonoma. Wayne last week was convicted of shooting Denton to death, stealing drugs, including OxyContin, and setting her home on fire.
“One thing that was clear from the investigation from the April Denton case: There's a very significant underground market for these powerful prescription pain medications. People get hooked,” Waner said.
Prosecutor Scott Jamar said he's seen an increase in the past 18 months regarding cases involving OxyContin in Sonoma County.
“It's becoming a much larger issue, prescription pills, prescription addictions,” Jamar said. “The trend we're seeing in young adults 18 to 28 is it's (OxyContin) the drug of choice for middle class to affluent folks.”
An arrest for possessing or dealing the drug is a felony because of its designation as a high-level narcotic, such as heroin.
Typical abusers will crush it, heat it and smoke it. But it also can be injected, snorted, and the time release coating coating can be removed and it can be simply chewed and swallowed. By smoking it, users are getting a 10-hour release pill into their system immediately.
“They're getting very high very fast and getting very addicted very fast,” said Sebastopol Officer David Ginn.
The number of injection drug users has dropped and prescription pill users have spiked over the past three years at Santa Rosa's Drug Abuse Alternatives Center's methodone clinic, said Michael Spielman, the center's director.
He said the rise coincides with an increase in younger clients, 18- and 19-year-olds, seeking the drug.
Younger people are opting for pill narcotics over drugs like heroin that are usually injected because they seem “cleaner,” Spielman said.
“Some of the messages about injection drug use have been heard, so people feel it's a safer, easier way of taking a narcotic,” he said.
But the drug can be just as addictive, and coming down “is the worst flu you've ever had” with vomiting and painful, involuntary twitching, he said.
And abuse of any drug can be fatal.
The death of actor Corey Haim from pulmonary congestion at his Southern California home last week remains under investigation and focused attention again on OxyContin.
Haim, 38, was discovered with four bottles of OxyContin obtained from fake prescriptions tied to an illegal prescription drug ring.
Investigators uncovered up to 5,000 fraudulent prescriptions connected to the group and are looking into about a half-dozen other prescription-drug rings just in Southern California, said Javier Salaiz, special agent supervisor for the stgate attorney general's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement and a lead investigator in the Haim case.
Salaiz said the drug's street price has halved in the past year because of its proliferation, although it's still an expensive choice for a narcotic user.
“Unless you're a very rich person, those people who have started to get addicted to Oxy then have to go for something less expensive,” Salaiz said. “We expect to see a big increase in heroin use by young adults.”
At Kelseyville Pharmacy, the robbery at knifepoint has made pharmacist and store owner Ruth Stewart consider not re-ordering OxyContin once his supply runs out.
“If I put a ‘No OxyContin on the premises' sign in the window, are they going to read it?” Stewart asked.
Pharmacists are obligated to ensure prescriptions are legitimate, which can include calling a doctor and asking about a patient's diagnosis. A pharmacist has a right to reject any prescription that doesn't seem right, Stewart said.
“People who get their prescription denied — and not as many do as should — they always accuse the pharmacist of being judgmental,” Stewart said. “Just like a police officer, we are in a position where we have to make a judgment call.”
Parents worried about their teenagers can watch for warning signs of OxyContin use, Ginn said. That includes aluminum foil folded up in pockets, typically with a black residue.
“That's a big red flag,” Ginn said.
Also pens emptied of inside components as the hollow tube is used as part of the smoking process, Ginn said.
Many teens first get the drug from a family medicine cabinet, said Tammy Cotter, a substance abuse prevention specialist for Petaluma City Schools.
“Prescription drug abuse really comes from a mindset that if a doctor prescribes it, then it's OK,” Cotter said.
Marijuana and alcohol still are the main drugs students are counseled on, Cotter said, but students increasingly include OxyContin as a drug they've used when filling out surveys to participate in the city's drug counseling programs.
“The hard thing about kicking opiates is that you know that if you just had a dose, you'd feel fine right away. It makes it pretty hard to stop on your own without help,” Spielman said.
College-aged students were about 80 percent of the clients of a former Santa Rosa drug dealer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“They'd buy a bottle at a time. They had mommy's tuition fees,” he said. “It seemed that the ones who liked it would take taxis to my house to get it, you know what I mean, they depended on it a lot."
The battle to curb the abuses is not just at street level.
OxyContin is on a list of narcotics the federal Food and Drug Administration may restrict in a control program that would limit the amount of the drug doctors are allowed to prescribe. Changes to the drug itself could be forthcoming, but it's unknown how long that will take.
Purdue Pharma spokesman James Heins said efforts to reformulate the drug have not been approved by the FDA “and therefore we cannot make any statements or comments about its properties, physical characteristics, or composition.”
By RANDI ROSSMANN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 1:10 p.m.