Addiction by Prescription: The Purdue Pharma-OxyContin Saga Continues
A mom called the other night from Simi Valley, one of L.A.’s bedroom communities. She was crying, begging for help. She had been up the previous night with her 22 year old son – we’ll call him Bill. He was so addicted to OxyContin and Xanax that she would check on him several times each night to make sure he was still breathing. The night before he was so sick, she was sure he was going to die.
Her son, she said, has been getting prescriptions from half a dozen local doctors for the past 3 years. He would show them two folders of medical records he compiled from accidents that occurred several years ago. They would give him 150- thirty milligram pills per month.
He was crushing and snorting at least five OxyContin each day – more if he could get them. He once smoked pulverized pills for a short period of time; he had never actually swallowed one. He did swallow his Xanax – at least 60 each month, all prescribed by the same doctors. OxyContin and Xanax, by the way, were key ingredients in the lethal cocktail that killed actor Heath Ledger in 2008.
Bill doesn’t drink or use street drugs. He insists he did not know OxyContin was highly addictive, that the doctors never told him. Once he understood he started trying to get off prescription drugs by going “cold turkey” because the family did not have enough money to pay for a medically-supervised detox. He ended up having seizures and putting his parents into panic mode.
Hard to believe that just three years ago U.S. Attorney John Brownlee won a major legal battle in Virginia against Purdue, the privately owned pharmaceutical which manufactures OxyContin.
“Despite knowing that OxyContin contained high concentrations of oxycodone, had an abuse potential similar to that of morphine, and was at least as addictive as other pain medications on the market, Purdue, beginning in January of 1996, with the intent to defraud and mislead, marketed and promoted OxyContin as less addictive, less subject to abuse and diversion, and less likely to cause tolerance and withdrawal than other pain medications,” Brownlee told PBS Newshour in May 2007. “Of the $600 million Purdue will pay, $130 million will be used to resolve civil suits brought by patients who say they became addicted to the drug…Over the years, OxyContin has legitimately helped many patients cope with pain, but its criminal abuse has been widespread. The drug has been connected with hundreds of deaths and arrests.”
Dr. Sidney Wolfe of the Public Citizen Health Research Group spoke during the same PBS Newshour. He said: “…Someone in the company, it wasn’t robots, designed this program to mislead doctors into thinking that this drug was much safer than it was and get them to prescribe it preferentially over other drugs.”
What has changed since then? Not much.
Bill’s mom earns $10/hour. Her husband, a chef, is on disability. He was injured serving relief workers during Katrina. She told me she could raise enough money to pay something for a doctor, but that was all. Someone had given her the name of Malibu Beach Recovery Center. I don’t know why because we are small, boutique and expensive. Not a good fit.
Together with our marketer, I called frantically around to find a free or almost free facility where Bill could get detoxed. He wanted help, but as everyone in this industry knows, an addict’s “window of willingness” is very short. I told his mom – “We have to move fast.” There was nowhere cheap enough to go except American Hospital in Pomona, which has a 4-7 day waiting list.
It was getting late. The mom was calling every few minutes. She was very frightened. She was also on Day 22 of a forty day march. Every evening she walks from one side of Simi Valley to the other — 10 miles — to raise awareness for Bill’s plight and that of virtually all of his friends, friends he has had since kindergarten. They are all, she says, severely addicted to OxyContin — if they aren’t already dead. With 28 more days of marching still to go, she had organized a 100 mom “Not One More” Promise Walk for October 9, 2010. The goal? Make the mayor and city council members aware of what is happening right under their noses.
It was a just cause. We’ve already had several young clients from Simi Valley and adjacent Moorpark. The parents all say the same thing: They moved to these “Leave It to Beaver” communities from the San Fernando Valley to give their kids better lives. Instead they became OxyContin addicts.
We found a way to take Bill in for 7 days and get him detoxed. Our plan was to then transfer him to one of the long term free treatment programs that do exceptional work but do not provide medically supervised detox services. Once detoxed he chose instead to move in with a sober friend and work in construction. He just called to report he is hiking and rock climbing alot; he assured me that when he feels cravings for OxyContin he does some of the yoga breath work he learned from our lead exercise instructor Oleg Yevseyev. I told him to call if he ever needs help again.
The OxyContin epidemic is not unique to Simi Valley and Moorpark. Last May I travelled to Sacramento with some of our alumni to support passage of a funding bill for CURES (California’s real time online narcotic prescription data base). The parents who spoke at the press conference were all from one Northern California Senate District, that of Senator Mark DeSaulnier who authored the bill. All of their children had died from OxyContin overdoses (one of them, April Rovero, went on to found the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse).
Nine months earlier I had several conversations with Lynette Ropp, a mom who lives in El Dorado County, yet another area of California where young people are dying from their addiction to this powerful drug which many parents describe as nothing more than synthetic heroin. Matt’s presence at Malibu Beach Recovery Center made me think of her, and her efforts to get Purdue Pharma to pay the costs of getting her son detoxed and treated.
“I continue to watch my son battle with OxyContin addiction. I am totally exhausted,” she wrote to the head of Purdue Pharma. “This past year has been very sad and stressful, checking constantly to make sure he is still breathing…Seeing him with dark circles under his eyes, watching him mumble his words unable to articulate himself clearly at times. So worried he will die. I called 911 at one point and he was taken by ambulance to the hospital for overdose. The rehab the doctor referred him to was closed for misappropriation of funds. He had been attending a outpatient program but slowly that tapered off…A couple weeks ago at a softball game (he plays in a league with long time childhood friends) he was unable to throw a softball 15 feet. My sister attended the game with her children and reports that he struggled to spit out a piece of gum. Stumbling and cussing, humiliating himself in front of friends and family. It is painful to watch my child who was such a talented, vibrant young man be totally depressed and sick…He needs professional medical help. I believe I have found the appropriate facility. Unfortunately everything comes down to money. So I find myself again contacting your office asking for help…”
Purdue never did provide the funds Lynette’s son needed to get professional treatment. Instead he went to jail for 9 months because of multiple legal charges related to his OxyContin habit. He is now clean and sober thanks to the largesse of California tax payers.
So here’s my question. We did our part. But what about the doctors who by now know that OxyContin is highly addictive? Shouldn’t they have to detox these kids for free? And what is the responsibility of Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin and still allows it to be prescribed in such lethal quantities? Why haven’t they set aside a very large fund to help Bill, and Lynette Roup’s son, and OxyContin addicts across the country get their lives back?