The OxyContin Scourge


Yesterday, defying the popular wisdom that it's easy to overdose on OxyContin, The Washington Times finally got around to running the Scary New Drug story that the rest of the press ran last year or the year before. To be fair, the Times does add a few new wrinkles to the familiar tale of a painkiller gone bad. It uses a capital H and a quirky hyphen in the phrase "Hillbilly-heroin," for example, and it goes with "powerful morphinelike high" instead of "heroin-like high." Also, it identifies OxyContin, a Schedule II drug legally available only by prescription, as an "over-the-counter painkiller," and it describes Percocet, which contains the same narcotic (oxycodone), as a "less-addictive painkiller."

As is typical for this genre of yellow journalism, the front-page article, headlined "OxyContin a Scourge for Users in Rural Areas," uncritically regurgitates the claims of law enforcement sources.

"OxyContin has been a highly destructive controlled substance that has had a devastating impact in much of America, particularly in the western Virginia and Appalachian region," U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty tells the Times. The Times not only accepts McNulty's account but embellishes it, stating later in the article that OxyContin is responsible for "destroying communities nationwide, although mainly in the East from Maine to Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky."

An agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives tells the Times: "Every year from 1996 to 1999, the crime rate [in southwestern Virginia] doubled directly because of the influx of OxyContin." The Times does not say what crimes the agent has in mind (murder? burglary? drug dealing? jaywalking?), or in what sense they were related to OxyContin.

The Times reports that in Broward County, Florida, "105 persons died from OxyContin overdoses from January 2001 to July 2002." This seems inconsistent with the article's earlier claim that OxyContin has killed "hundreds" of people during the last five years. If a single county has more than 100 OxyContin-related deaths over an 18-month period, surely the country as a whole must be up into the thousands by now.

Nor does the Broward County figure jibe with the numbers reported by the Drug Enforcement Administration. "As of April 2002," Melinda Ammann noted in Reason's April issue, "the DEA counted 146 'verified' deaths involving OxyContin–cases where OxyContin was the source of oxycodone found in someone's body but not necessarily the cause of death. Even in these cases, the subjects usually had taken alcohol or other drugs in addition to oxycodone." If we accept the DEA's figure at face value, the Times is suggesting that something like two-thirds of the OxyContin deaths occurred in Broward County.

The Times is similarly credulous when it comes to testimony from self-described OxyContin addicts. "It put me on a path straight for hell with no exit ramps," says one addict turned police informant. "That pill was made by the devil himself….It ruins your family and your relationships, your children's lives, your closest family to you, your job."

If OxyContin is so overwhelming in its destructive power, a halfway skeptical person might wonder, how do so many people manage to use it as a painkiller without going to hell in the express lane? How do they preserve their families, maintain their relationships, and keep their jobs even while taking this diabolical drug? The Times, which seems only dimly aware that OxyContin serves any positive function at all, does not ask.