In Brevard County, oxycodone killed 243 people from 2006 to 2010, according to Brevard County Medical Examiner’s Office records. The drug was responsible for 77 deaths in 2010, the last year in which complete data has been compiled. That’s triple the death toll from 2006, when 24 deaths were attributed to the painkiller. Moreover, records show oxycodone was present in the bodies of hundreds more people who died, though it was not listed as the primary cause of their deaths.
Lead medical examiner’s investigator Craig Engelson said that when he goes out on a call to investigate a death not involving a shooting, stabbing or vehicle crash, prescription painkillers like oxycodone — also known by the brand name OxyContin — often are involved.
“You can almost guess when you go to the scene” that oxycodone was a factor, he said.
Oxycodone is a valuable drug when used properly, medical experts say, offering relief to people with chronic pain who aren’t helped by other medicines.
But when abused, it grips addicts in a vise they say is almost impossible to loosen. And the drug’s hold causes a cascade of other problems across the community.
Oxycodone is linked to countless crimes, authorities say, as addicts try to steal the pills directly from pharmacies or turn to theft to get money to buy the drug on the black market.
The problem cuts across all social and economic strata, experts say. In Brevard, senior citizens have died of overdoses, as well as those not old enough to legally buy a beer. Among those who have been hooked by the drug are high school dropouts and successful professionals. Last year, a surveillance tape showed a West Melbourne police officer swiping pain pills from the department’s evidence locker.
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“There is no boundary where it is not there. It’s everywhere,” said Brevard County Sheriff’s Lt. Alex Herrera, who heads the Sheriff’s Office Cape Canaveral Precinct, and has been in the homicide and the Special Investigations Unit that specializes in narcotics cases. “We’re not talking about a plant that is grown in Colombia. It’s so readily available that it is tough to get a grip on. It’s a main focus of the Special Investigations Unit. You can go into any high-income or low-income community, and have addicts or sellers live there. This has really become an epidemic.”
Herrera said law enforcement agencies can do special sweeps aimed at the prescription drug trade, but still not shut down sales entirely.
“It’s like gremlins. You can’t get rid of them,” Herrera said, which is why police agencies have included prescription medications to the list of drug dangers they try to educate school kids about.
The economics of oxycodone makes it attractive for drug dealers. A prescription retails at a pharmacy for the equivalent a few dollars per pill. But the pills can be sold on the street for up to $80 apiece, depending on dosage in the pill, Herrera said.
Even at half that much, “The profit is immense,” Herrera said. “When you can take a pill bottle, and turn the 80 pills to $500, it’s alluring.”
Typically, Herrera said, someone with a real or fake X-ray of an injury walks into several disreputable pain-management clinics that have become prevalent across Florida. The person pays a fee for the office visit in cash, gets prescriptions for oxycodone or similar pain drugs, and picks up the medicine at pharmacies.
Risk of death
Sometimes, a legitimate injury leads to addiction.
“It starts out innocently enough, as they hurt their back, and got a prescription for a pain medication,” Engelson said. “And they wind up here” on the autopsy table at the medical examiner’s office.
He said 95 percent of the oxycodone deaths he sees are accidental, rather than intentional overdoses resulting in suicide.
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Engelson said many painkiller abusers find that to get the same impact or euphoria, “They have to take more and more and more, crushing and snorting it,” rather than swallowing it. Some also inject the drug like heroin.
“It’s a quicker, faster high,” Lt. Herrera said.
Brevard County Health Department Director Dr. Heidar Heshmati said, when prescribed and used properly, oxycodone “is an excellent medication for pain. There are so many patients that have chronic pain.”
The problem, he said, is when the drug is abused, particular in combination with other drugs such as an anti-anxiety drug like Xanax and a muscle relaxer like Soma, or in combination with alcohol.
“The body cannot tolerate the combination,” Heshmati said.
Paul Sloan, president of the Florida Society of Pain Management Providers, said he believes pain doctors are being unfairly portrayed by those looking to restrict the sale and use of legitimate medicines.
Sloan said oxycodone is “a very strong medication that can have serious consequences if not taken as prescribed.” He said the 99 percent of people who properly take the drug should not be punished by restricted availability because of the 1 percent who abuse it.
“This is now a war on legitimate pain patients, and it’s just nuts,” Sloan said.
Sloan, whose Venice, Fla.-based organization represents about 100 pain management practices in Florida, said he supports new state regulations providing more oversight of pain clincs.
He believes the new rules helped shut down many so-called “pill mills” that were improperly prescribing pain medications to patients who didn’t need them. He said there were roughly 50 “big players” in Florida, mainly in big cities, abusing the system.
“It’s wrong to use your script pad to make money,” Sloan said.
Sloan also has issues with data from medical examiner’s offices in Florida showing a dramatic rise in oxycodone deaths. Sloan said “everybody has a different standard” in determining cause of death, and the presence of oxycodene in a deceased person does not necessarily mean that was a contributing factor.
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“I think the medical examiners are misleading the public,” Sloan said. “I think this is bogus and junk science. This has become a true witch hunt.”
‘Oxy comes first’ from FloridaToday.com shortened:
Sims, who has been a registered nurse in various capacities for 15 years, doesn’t believe oxycodone should be prescribed at all. Her kids got hooked after one son was prescribed oxycodone because of injuries from a car crash. He shared the pills with his brother and sister.
Sims hopes to prompt a crusade to outlaw the drug after seeing what it’s done to her children and their friends.
Over the years, her children stole cash from her to buy drugs. They’ve taken computers, DVD players, furniture and jewelry from her, selling the stuff for drug money or trading it for drugs. Once, she had to go to a drug dealer’s home to buy back her own laptop. The children used life insurance payouts after their father died to finance their drug habits, and her son hurt in the car crash spent much of that insurance settlement to buy pills.
“The drugs mean more than eating or anything to them,” Sims said. “The drugs just twist their brain so badly. The oxy comes first and everything else comes afterward.”
All three have long criminal records, Sims said.
“My three kids all told me they don’t want this life,” Sims said. “They try and they try and they try” to kick the habit, “but they fail every time.”
A few months ago, Sims got a tattoo on her right calf. “Each day’s a gift, not a given right.” The phrase alludes to the fleeting time she and her children could have together.