Devil in a blue pill: Painkiller addiction a growing problem statewide

By Michael Newberger |

Nick Waters* is your typical college student. He hits the beach with friends, goes to parties, lives in a nice house he rents out with two friends, and begrudgingly goes to class. But Waters also struggles with something not a lot of others face: addiction to Oxycodone.

Oxycodone, the main drug found in OxyContin and Percocest, not only acts as a painkiller, but can also give the user a euphoric high, which is why some find it so appealing. But after too much use, physical dependency can set in. Waters experimented with the drug his freshman year, but started heavily using it his junior year. He said he didn’t realize how bad his addiction was until he started using the drug not to feel a high, but to feel normal.

Without using, he said getting more pills was always in the back of his mind, and the near constant anxiety from that made it almost impossible to function.

One of the main factors for the rise of Oxycodone abuse is that it is a legitimate medicine. Waters said one of the ways he and his friends could get a hold of the drug was through people who have been prescribed it by doctors for injuries or after surgery, but who didn’t want to get hooked themselves or simply wanted to make some quick money.

While Waters didn’t participate in it himself, most addicts or dealers will use a process called “doctor shopping.” The user will go to multiple doctors with claims of pain and request the drug, then go to various pharmacies to fill prescriptions. A growing issue in the state of Florida are so-called “pill mills,” pain clinics that only accept cash and prescribe painkillers in large amounts. Dealers from across the country come to Florida and buy large quantities of the drug.

Due to a loophole in state law, Florida is the only state that allows these types of practitioners, who remain almost anonymous by accepting cash-only instead of insurance, which is much more easily traced by law enforcement.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Oxycodone is a powerful narcotic that is partly derived from opium, and is mainly abused for the sense of euphoria that comes along with it. The drug can cause severe respiration problems and can to lead to coma or death if a subject overdoses. In a report by the Department of Justice on the abuse of prescription drugs, deaths from overdose of prescription pills increased 98 percent from 2000 to 2006.

By the point of the interview Waters had originally gone from taking 15mg of the drug to about 45mg in three months, and saw his grades fall dramatically. Quitting hasn’t been easy. He was in his first day of withdrawal when interviewed and said he was suffering from heavy stress and nausea, and he was drinking to “take the edge off.”

“The effect of Oxy is kind of like a balloon,” he said. “It fills you up with more and better feelings, but then it just pops. The only way out of the cycle is to either quit or, well, die.”

Waters realized it was time to make a change when the drug was affecting everything from his grades to his sleeping habits. Oxycodone was making him unable to sleep when he wasn’t on it. It changed his eating habits as well. He said when he would take pills, he wouldn’t think about being hungry, and when he wasn’t on it he was too anxious to eat.

Glenn Goldberg, Ph.D., the director of the counseling services at Flagler College, has seen his share of students with drug problems, including students abusing prescription painkillers containing Oxycodone.

Goldberg says most of the students he sees with addiction to the drug start out using the drug recreationally, but then use it to cope with stress and anxiety until they are emotionally or even physically hooked.

“What we see is a somewhat vicious cycle of kids first using the drug for recreation, then becoming depressed about the situations in their lives so they use even more to try and balance everything out in their eyes,” Goldberg said. “They end up building a stronger tolerance and find themselves having to take larger quantities and sometimes mixing it with other drugs.”

Debate has raged in Tallahassee about starting a statewide drug database to monitor the prescriptions of patients to prevent people from abusing prescription drugs. Gov. Rick Scott has been against the plan, claiming it’s an invasion of privacy. The plan has been moving forward, however, and Scott has reluctantly agreed to the database and says the focus should be more on pressuring the companies that make the drugs than those who receive the medication.

“Every day, we see that pharmaceutical manufacturers and wholesalers turn a blind eye when massive amounts of narcotics stream into the same regions of Florida week after week,” Scott said in a press release Thursday. “With my partners in the Florida Legislature, we are moving legislation to limit how doctors dispense narcotics and making sure doctors divest from pharmacies. The role of doctors who have forsaken their commitment to people’s health in exchange for the quick buck of unethical and criminal dispensing cannot be overstated and absolutely must be put to an end.”

Sgt. Chuck Mulligan of the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office agrees with the push for a database. Due to current federal laws, Mulligan said he cannot arrest someone with a prescription, regardless of suspicion that they’re abusing the drug.

The sheriff’s office has put a moratorium on pain clinics in the county to help prevent the spread of the drug. Mulligan says it’s not unusual to see cars with license plates from all over the country and people waiting in line while numbers are called to get their pills.

In a DEA study, Florida was found to have 98 out of 100 of the doctors who prescribe the largest amounts of Oxycodone. The Sunshine State is used as a pick-up point for dealers across the country due to the convenience of pill mills, most of which are based in Miami, Orlando, Tampa and, to a lesser extent, Jacksonville. The dealers usually return to their home state to sell the product at a much higher mark up.

While pain clinics have been banned here in St. Johns County, the drug has still hit the area hard. Mulligan said there’s been a huge upswing in the last few years of overdoses of Oxycodone, especially among 20- to 30-year-olds. It’s also led to an increase in robberies of pharmacies, including the April 15 robbery of a Walgreens on U.S. 1, which led to a high-speed chase ending with the car flipping. The suspects weren’t interested in money — only the pills.

After being interviewed two weeks after quitting, Waters said he felt like he was almost back to normal. Relationships with his friends weren’t as strained as they used to be, though he says he’s still in a hole in terms of his academics. Yet, Waters has seen his drinking go up, saying that he knew he would return to using if he simply quit cold turkey.

“The urge is sometimes in the back of my mind to take some Oxy, but then I remember how much damage it can do, and that completely replaces any thought of wanting to do it,” he said. “I mean you look at people like rock stars or anyone who does drugs like this and you realize that there’s no good place it can end up.”

*Name has been changed to protect the student’s identity.

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