In 2009, at the height of the “OxyContin craze,” Perdue Pharma took a large step to combat prescription pill abuse. They came out with a reformulated, abuse-deterrent version of their blockbuster drug. Supporters of this new OxyContin were quick to label it “abuse-proof” and praise Perdue Pharma.
While Perdue certainly stepped up, six years of research on their abuse-deterrent drug has uncovered some interesting information. While “abuse-proof” OxyContin is difficult to crush and turns into a gooey gel-like substance if mixed with water, it can still be abused.
According to researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine, OxyContin abuse is still rampant. Scientists and academics studied something called SKIP, or the Survey of Key Informants’ Patients. They examined more than 10,000 SKIPs from 150 rehabs across the country, for the years 2009 to 2014. They also conducted patient interviews.
The results? Well, OxyContin abuse is down. In 2009 around 45% of people seeking substance abuse treatment admitted to abusing OxyContin in the past month. In 2014 that number hovers in the 25% range.
These findings, published recently in JAMA Psychiatry, are still alarming. Around 25% of people going to rehab are abusing a so-called “abuse-proof” drug. What gives?
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So what exactly did researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine find? Well, according to study results pulled from the JAMA Network’s site:
- In 2009, 45.1% of individuals entering treatment admitted to past month use of abuse-deterrent OxyContin
- In 2012, 26% of individuals entering treatment admitted to past month use of abuse-deterrent OxyContin
- This 26% remained steady throughout 2013 and 2014
- Abuse-deterrent forms of OxyContin did change addicts’ using behavior. 43% of those interviewed by researchers from Washington University switched from smoking, snorting, or shooting the drug to taking it orally
- 34% of those interviewed found ways to defeat the “abuse-proof” mechanism and continued to snort, smoke, or inject the drug
- 23% of those interviewed were already oral OxyContin users. They continued as such
Side Effects of “Abuse-Proof” Pills
So OxyContin abuse is down from 2009. That much is clear and cause for celebration. Fewer people are abusing and addicted to a powerful opioid painkiller. Surely that’s a good thing, right?
Well, think again. While it’s good that fewer people are abusing OxyContin, that doesn’t mean they’re sober. Dr. Theodore J. Cicero, the lead author of this new study and Professor of Neuropharmacology in Psychiatry, thinks that something’s amiss.
In a statement, Dr. Cicero said,
“We found that the abuse-deterrent formulation was useful as a first line of defense…Oxycontin abuse in people seeking treatment declined, but that decline slowed after a while. And during that same time period, heroin use increased dramatically” (Psychiatry Advisor).
That’s the heart of the problem with abuse-deterrent pain pills. Unless some other intervention is put in place, users will simply switch to opioids they don’t need a prescription to obtain. I’m talking, of course, about heroin.
Cicero and his team found that 70% of individuals who stopped abusing OxyContin and continued getting high switched to heroin. Let that number sink in for a minute. 70% of former OxyContin users switched to heroin. That’s a grim number.
An older study reflects this same stark reality. According to this study, around 75% of current heroin users were first introduced to heroin through painkillers. It’s clear that making pills harder to abuse isn’t offering any sort of long-term solution. It’s a sort of Band-Aid fix to a wound that requires much more.
Hope for Addicts
If making so-called “abuse-proof” pills isn’t the answer, well, what is? Unfortunately for all involved, the answer isn’t easy and it isn’t quick.
The solution to opioid addiction, be it to OxyContin, heroin, or another drug entirely, comes from one addict helping another. It comes from quality substance abuse treatment, followed up with living a life based on certain ideas. The ideas I’m talking about are spiritual in nature.
Addicts and alcoholics are, by nature, undisciplined. A quick fix solution, something like making pills harder to abuse, isn’t going to make them quit drugs for good. Rather, it will make them switch to something easier to obtain and abuse.
What will help addicts quit drugs once and for all is a form of spiritual discipline. Now don’t mistake me, I’m not talking about the type of discipline we’re used to from grade school. No, I’m talking about getting connected to a Higher Power through involvement in twelve-step fellowships. This promotes the type of long-term recovery that restores families.
Of course, before even thinking about long-term recovery, individuals struggling with addiction need to enter treatment. They need to be physically separated from drugs and gain insight into why they used in the first place.
The one-two punch of substance abuse treatment and twelve-step participation offers real and meaningful recovery from opioid dependence. It’s that simple.