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'Oxycotton' the New Street Drug of Choice for Many

WebMD Health News

Feb. 9, 2001 -- The official name is OxyContin, but on the street it's known as "oxycotton." And at a dollar a milligram, it's the drug du jour from the coal-mining country of Kentucky to the bleak factory towns of rural Maine.

When taken in pill form, as intended, OxyContin is a slow-release narcotic prescribed for pain caused by cancer, severe arthritis, sickle cell disease, and nerve damage. The active ingredient in the drug is a morphine derivative, the same as that also found in Percodan.

But when bought on the street, oxycotton is crushed and snorted to deliver a powerful and fast high that many users say is better than heroin.

Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, has known for about a year that the medicine is being abused, says J. David Haddox, MD, senior medical director of the company.

"As soon as we learned about the abuse problems, we went into those areas where abuse was reported and began education programs for physicians," Haddox says. "We also cooperated with law enforcement in those areas because we want to do all that we can to make sure this drug is not abused. We want to stop the drug from being obtained through fraud or theft."

The drug's growing bad reputation is a cause of concern and even fear to those who take it for medicinal reasons. For instance, Jeanette Murray, RN, injured her arm in a fall at work almost two years ago and has suffered chronic pain since then. After trying a number of different painkillers, she finally found relief with OxyContin and now takes two 40-mg pills each day.

But because of newspaper reports of OxyContin's attractiveness to hard-core addicts, Murray says, "she sometimes has trouble getting her prescription because some pharmacies in her Virginia home town won't stock the drug for fear the stores will be broken into. And some physicians are reluctant to write prescriptions for it because they worry that they will become the target of investigations by law enforcement agencies.

"I'm even afraid when I'm carrying pills around that I'll be attacked," Murray says.

Still, taking OxyContin is worth the hassle, Murray says, because it eases her pain and permits her to live a nearly normal life. And taken as directed, under medical supervision, the drug does not lead to addiction, she contends.

"You become dependent upon the drug just as you would be dependent on blood pressure medication or insulin," Murray says. "But you are not addicted in the sense that you are craving the drug."

"This drug makes it possible for chronic pain patients to live their lives normally. It makes a profound difference in the quality of their lives," says Robert Swerdlow, MD, associate professor of medicine and oncology at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute at Wayne State University in Detroit.

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