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New drug seen as rising threat on the East Coast, Virginia

Due in part to an alarming rise in the illicit usage of the painkiller drug OxyContin, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation earlier this month which will require the Director of the Department of Health Professions to establish the Prescription Monitoring Program. This program will allow state government and police agencies to monitor who has access to certain "covered substances," including OxyContin.

OxyContin is the product name for the generic narcotic oxycodone hydrochloride. This opiate agonist provides pain relief by directly acting on opioid receptors in the brain and spiral column. As an oral tablet, OxyContin acts like morphine and can provide long term pain relief for up to 12 hours. Since its development in 1995 by Purdue Pharma L.P., OxyContin has quickly become a controversial substance because of the rising amount of people who have abused and become addicted to the drug.

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, OxyContin is a substance that, when taken incorrectly, can induce a high similar to heroine. This drug, also known as "Hillbilly Heroine" because of its growing abuse in the Appalachian region, began to be misused in East Coast regions but is starting to spread to the West Coast.

OxyContin abuse "started showing up in rural areas on the East Coast where there was not a large illicit drug market," said Charles Miller, chief of congressional and public affairs at the NDIC. "It began in areas where there was a large population of elderly people who were on pain medications and where a number of doctors where involved" in prescribing the product on a legal market.

This product's abuse is not confined to one age group, said Robin Boggio, an intelligence analyst for the NDIC. "It's abused by people who don't want the stigma of trying heroine. Some people perceive it as safer than heroine," but it is very dangerous and highly addictive when used incorrectly, Boggio said.

Addictions and misuse of the drug have been blamed for hundreds of deaths and countless thefts and shoplifting incidents across the country.

According to the NDIC Web site, police in Pulaski County, Va., reported in Oct. 2000 that 90 percent of all thefts, burglaries and shoplifting incidents in the area were linked to OxyContin. Since Feb. 1999, in Tazewell County, Va., thieves reportedly demanded only OxyContin in at least 10 pharmacy robberies.

Incidents like these prompted the General Assembly's most recent legislation, which will set up a two-year pilot program for the Prescription Monitoring Program for areas of southwestern Virginia where OxyContin has been blamed for more than 60 deaths.

Under the bill, the Department of Health Professions would notify the attorney general's office and local prosecutors of possible criminal activity and illegal use of "covered substances" like OxyContin. The state police drug task force would control access to the database. Legislators hope the new database will allow officers to track down illegal users within days as opposed to months. The legislation now only requires approval by Gov. Mark R. Warner to pass into law.

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