‘New’ OxyContin, old problem

EVERETT — Before Marquise Brown was shot to death in June, he was accused of dealing fake OxyContin pills.

Investigators wondered if the shooter suspected that Brown was trying to pass off a new kind of OxyContin, a reformulated version of the prescription painkiller that hit the market last year. Altering the old pill gives people a faster high, a rush that they don’t feel if they swallow the tablet whole.

The new OxyContin is intended to be more tamper-resistant so people can’t grind it up for smoking or snorting.

Detectives learned that those involved in the drug deal “tested” the pill by trying to burn it. The test showed that the pills couldn’t be smoked, police wrote in court papers.

“The information we’re getting from multiple witnesses is that the beef was that the Oxy was bad,” Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Craig Matheson said. “The victim ended up with a bullet in his head over it.”

It’s likely the pills Brown sold were counterfeit OxyContin, or a different drug all together. Police don’t know because the drugs were never recovered.

It’s still too early to tell, though, what kind of impact the new Oxy formula may have on prescription drug abuse and illegal drug trafficking.

Some say there is the potential to see a decline in OxyContin abuse among young people, who typically start out by using prescription drugs pilfered from their parents’ medicine cabinets.

Others wonder if the change in Oxy’s formula has hastened a surge in heroin use.

So far, detectives with Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force haven’t encountered much of the new formula in their dealings with drug traffickers. They have heard that people have found a way to manipulate the new pills so they can still be abused, but detectives haven’t verified those claims.

Mostly they have seen the demand for OxyContin plummet as more people are switching to heroin, said Everett police Lt. Mark St. Clair, a member of the task force.

Last year, police in Snohomish County saw a significant upswing in heroin use, especially among young people. They suspected that the increase was a symptom of the rampant abuse of prescription painkillers, primarily OxyContin.

“In all these years, I’ve never had anyone tell me that heroin was their gateway drug,” St. Clair said.

People get addicted to OxyContin, a synthetic opioid, but because it is expensive and harder to get, they are switching to heroin, which is selling for $20 a gram, St. Clair said. A smokeable form of heroin, known as gunpowder heroin, also has re-emerged. Smoking may make some people more willing to experiment with the drug than if their only option was to inject it, drug experts said.

Abuse of prescription pain medication had skyrocketed in the past decade. A study released in July indicated that misused prescription painkillers had become the second most prevalent illicit drug in the nation. There was a 400 percent increase in treatment for people abusing prescription drugs between 1998 and 2008, according to the national study conducted by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Office of Applied Studies. In 2008, the study said an estimated 500,000 people tried OxyContin for non-medical purposes for the first time.

Statistics in Snohomish County show that people are more likely to die of an accidental overdose than in a vehicle crash. More than 40 percent of the fatal overdoses here were caused by a prescription opioid such as OxyContin.

Washington state lawmakers are making another run at getting pharmaceutical companies to pay for prescription drug take-back programs. A dozen programs operate in the state to provide people with a place to dispose of their unused medications. Police and some lawmakers say the drug companies should be paying for the programs.

Other states also have developed prescription monitoring programs. The National Drug Control Strategy released in May calls for helping states crack down on doctor shopping and pill mills, which hand out drugs willy-nilly. The strategy also urges increased education for doctors who are treating patients with chronic pain.

Meanwhile, Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin, created the new formula in an attempt to make the tablet more difficult to manipulate. That formula was approved by the Federal Drug Administration in April.

OxyContin is intended to treat patients who require around-the-clock pain control. Its slow-release formula contains a large quantity of oxycodone. Drug abusers learned to tamper with the controlled-release formula by grinding or cutting it up. That allows them to receive a higher dose of oxycodone more quickly than if they swallow the tablet whole. People often smoke or snort OxyContin to get high.

There is no evidence that the new formula is tamper-proof, Purdue spokesman James Heins said. The company is gathering data and is required to conduct studies to determine if the new formula has any impact on abuse and misuse.

Police and prosecutors say there’s no indication that the new formula has caused a spike in violence among drug dealers. Word reached the street that Oxy was changing long before the first shipments were sent to pharmacies in August, police said.

Investigators once speculated that the new formula may have factored into Brown’s death. They have since learned the new Oxy wasn’t available until a couple months after Brown’s body was found in the middle of the street.

Jerome Blake, 24, is charged with first-degree murder for the slaying. He is scheduled to go to trial in April.

Witnesses told police that Blake and a couple other guys came up with $2,400 to buy some OxyContin. Eventually the money was given to Brown to buy the drugs from someone else in Everett. The man who brokered the deal thought the drugs were fake and attempted to test them.

Prosecutors allege that Blake was upset that the pills weren’t the real deal and shot Brown in the head.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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