Oxycontin, The New Gateway Drug?

Last year it was reported that around 70% of workers in Fort Hope Canada are frequent users of oxycontin, an opiate which is renowned for being highly addictive. The brand name oxycontin is a prescribed time-release form of the painkiller oxycodone. These drugs are designed for patients suffering with mediate to severe, acute or chronic pains. However the recreational use of oxycontin is a rising problem that has been discussed in the media frequently over the past decade. Many concerned parents fear that oxycontin is too easily accessible and has become the new gateway drug that could lead on to illegal class A drugs such as heroin.

The basics

Oxycontin is an opioid that was first manufactured in 1996 as a fast acting medicine for people suffering fairly severe pains. Like any other opioid the medicine derives from the opium poppy which is also used to create diamorphine (heroin). Opioids work by binding to the opioid receptors found naturally in the human brain and nervous system, and the gastrointestinal tract.

The medicinal use of opioids predates recorded history,  used for reducing the perception of and reaction to pain. The painkiller oxycontin was designed to provide instant and long lasting relief through slowly releasing the chemical into the body. On release the company Purdue Pharma claimed that there should be less risk of abuse with this form of oxycodone due to it being a time-release drug. However by 2000 there were widespread cases of substance abuse in patients with prescriptions, and in recreational users who had gained it illegally.

Gateway possibilities

People who abuse oxycontin, often crush it up to inject or snort providing an instant high. However in 2010 Purdue Pharma released the reformulated oxycontin which when crushed, cut or broken was less effective as a narcotic. This was designed to deter recreational use of the drug and ensure that it was only used for medicinal purposes. However instead of deterring recreational use many addicts started using heroin instead. In recent years the number of heroin addicts and dealers has been on the rise, many put this down to oxycontin. Oxycontin has been described as being as potent as heroin and twice as addictive. In addition to this, it is much more expensive. With it being more difficult and more expensive to get high on the legal drug, addicts have little choice but to move onto heroin.

Whilst abusing oxycontin is dangerous enough, heroin abuse carries far more risks. People who abuse legal medicines are told on the packaging how many milligrams of opioids they are going to ingest, but heroin is completely ambiguous. When buying illegally users don’t know how much opium they are buying and what the drug has been cut with, this means the risks of overdose and death are much higher.

Spotting addiction

If you know someone who has been prescribed oxycontin and are concerned that they are abusing the drug, remember that as well as the initial euphoric effects of opioids, there are a number of visible side effects.

- Nausea
- Vomiting
- Itching
- Loss of weight
- Loss of appetite
- Anxiety
- Restlessness
- Visibly shaking
In addition to these physical symptoms addicts are often erratic and prone to mood swings. As relieving the symptoms of withdrawal becomes their main priority, they may sell possessions in order to get their next fix. Some oxycontin addicts and the majority of heroin addicts inject the drug, usually into their arms or legs, leaving distinctive scars and scabs.

The new gateway drug?

Considering how addictive oxycontin is, there is certainly a risk of users leading on to illegal substances such as heroin. People who are actively searching for prescription drugs, purely to get high on will be likely to use other substances that provide a similar high. However the term ‘gateway drug’ is often associated with softer substances, particularly cannabis. Users of cannabis may go on to seek a more intense or stronger high after being a recreational smoker for some time.

Opioids provide a much stronger high and recreational drug users are likely to have experimented with other drugs before using it, it would rarely be considered as a ‘starter’ drug like cannabis. On the other hand patients who have been prescribed oxycontin with no previous intentions of abusing substances are potentially at risk of becoming addicted. Despite originally intending to take oxycontin to relieve pain, patients may take more than recommended and eventually become hooked. Once someone is in the grip of addiction their need to get high overcomes their rationality and illegal substances may be the only option to relieve the symptoms of withdrawal.

An avid writer, Stanely Martinson is interested in all things pertaining to health and health care.  Recently his fascination has turned towards addiction and rehabilitation.  For more information on rehab, read this.

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