A pill that an arthritis sufferer might use to get through the day could look like heroin to a drug addict.
The head of the Southeast Alaska Narcotic Enforcement Team said the multiagency task force is seeing more recreational use of prescription painkillers, Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Tim Birt said.
"Diversion drugs," Birt called them, because they are diverted from their legal purpose. People need to be aware that having the drugs legitimately could make them targets for crime, he added.
Physicians are directed to warn users of OxyContin and hydrocodone that they can become addicted to the powerful pain relievers. But Birt said the local problem isn't with people who acquire the drugs honestly. "Especially OxyContin," he said.
According to reports from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, OxyContin, a trade name for oxycodone hydrochloride, was introduced about eight years ago as a longer-lasting dosage of oxycodone, a central nervous system depressant prescribed as a pain reliever.
Products that contain oxycodone include Percocet, Percodan and Tylox.
Non-prescription use of prescription drugs has long been a problem. In seizure reports this year, troopers have broken out OxyContin and hydrocodone into categories of their own.
"They find it an increasing trend," trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson said from Anchorage.
Troopers put the street value of an OxyContin tablet at $80. Hydrocodone, a pain reliever found in Vicodin, sells for $1 a pill on the Alaska illegal drug market, according to Wilkinson.
The illegal use of prescription painkillers "is certainly a growing trend," Birt said. "They don't have the stigma that cocaine or methamphetamine does."
Wilkinson noted, however, that state law places OxyContin in the most restricted class of drugs, making non-prescription possession as serious a crime as possessing heroin.
On the street, OxyContin often is know by its initials, OC, and has been refereed to as "hillbilly heroin," according to the DEA. The agency reports that many recreational users are ingesting the pills in ways that release the contents all at once.
Pam Watts, behavioral health administrator for Bartlett Regional Hospital, said she sees good reason for physicians to prescribe OxyContin.
"Because it is such an effective pain-relieving drug, it is commonly prescribed for serious pain problems," she said.
Problems come not only from people running the risk of becoming dependent on the drug, but because they might innocently share it, she added.
Some people share the drug without intending to.
Juneau police arrested three teens in March on burglary charges, alleging they broke into a Mendenhall Valley home while out of school for spring break. They were accused of stealing four OxyContin pills and nothing else. A 17-year-old boy, the youngest of the three teens, told police he was addicted.
Juneau police also investigated the theft of OxyContin and other drugs in a burglary of a Mendenhall Valley pharmacy at the end of 2003. Officers learned that one or more burglars gained entry into building through the ceiling, after starting from an adjacent business.
In the first four months of this year, SEANET seized 25 hydrocodone tablets, compared to only two OxyContin tablets seized north of Ketchikan.
"If people have drugs or painkillers in the house, it's not something they want to advertise," Birt said.
He said people need to treat the pills with the sort of care they would treat valuables.
He doesn't expect OxyContin to become more popular among drug users than cocaine and methamphetamine, though.
"Different abusers abuse different drugs," he said. "People have their drugs of choice for different reasons."
Tony Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.