July 16, 2015
Every July I have the good fortune of spending a week at Fordham University in New York City, where I teach ethics and mentor fellows enrolled in a training program supported by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Even though I am a senior faculty member in that program, I suspect that I learn more from my students — researchers who work with drug users, commercial sex workers and other marginalized populations — than they probably learn from me. One of the things that I learned about this week was the resurgence of heroin use that has followed in the wake of the prescription drug epidemic.
I’ve written many times about America’s addition to prescription painkillers like OxyContin. First approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1995, that drug was a godsend to patients with severe and unremitting pain, such as those with late-stage cancer.
Unlike most short-lived analgesics that were available in US pharmacies at that time, OxyContin provided a potent dose of a painkilling opiate that was released over a long period of time. Instead of taking pills or taking shots every hour or so, patients prescribed OxyContin only needed one or two pills a day to get relief. Heavily promoted by pharmaceutical reps, within a few years OxyContin became one of the most overprescribed (and most abused) of the prescription drugs.
This is because what made OxyContin so useful for cancer patients — the large opiate dose — also made it attractive to drug users. By grinding up and inhaling or injecting the pills, they could get a very intense and very quick high.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.