Former Oxy dealer warns others of drug's hold

Posted: Sunday, June 14, 2009

John Tegano knows that warnings about drug use are commonly brushed aside by those who need to hear them most. The 24-year-old former OxyContin addict and dealer admits he didn't heed other's advice about the narcotic painkiller's addictive properties. Denial, stubbornness and hubris kept him from believing he was spiraling out of control, long after it was clear he had developed a problem, he said.

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MICHAEL PENN / THE JUNEAU EMPIRE
MICHAEL PENN / THE JUNEAU EMPIRE

However, Tegano, speaking from his own experience, hopes his tale of Oxy's devastating effects will find a way through to someone.

"I'm trying to get people to realize what can happen - what you lose, what happens to you," he told the Empire last week.

"I will tell you first-hand that this has ruined my life so far. No good comes out of it."

Though Oxy use usually starts off as a way to have fun, need soon supplants choice, he said.

"The negatives outweigh the positives by far," he said. "You get high for 30 minutes, maybe. And after that its not about getting high - you have to do this just to get through your day."

On Wednesday, Tegano served the last day of a two-year sentence on a charge of attempted misconduct involving a controlled substance, spending part of his time at Lemon Creek Correctional Center and the rest at a halfway house near Costco.

After he was moved to the halfway house, he began working at Bullwinkle's Pizza, where he met Mitch Falk, owner of the local pizzeria and a founding member of Taking Action, a group advocating student drug testing of athletes in Juneau's high schools.

Though he's from Las Vegas, Tegano served his time here because his crime involved shipping OxyContin into Juneau, according to court documents.

Eager to return to Nevada, Tegano said he's ready to put drugs behind him. But first he had a story to tell.

Three years he barely remembers

A straight-A student and star athlete, Tegano comes from a large, closely-knit family where such problems were unheard of. He and his younger brother experimented with different kinds of drugs in high school, but never went very far with them.

Random drug testing was given in his high school, but it didn't deter him from some drug use as a teen.

"It has good potential, what it means to do is good, but it doesn't work out like that," he said. "It never worked. Kids would get popped all the time - they'll find a way around it."

Tegano said he began using OxyContin when he was 19 as a freshman at the University of Nevada at Reno. After a month of using Oxy, he couldn't stop.

"I don't know how it happened, really," he said. "Before I knew it I was in deep, I was already gone."

By the time he got clear three years had passed by, which Tegano says he barely remembers.

In spite of his addiction, he was able to maintain the semblance of normalcy at school and at home. He juggled college, sports, and a full time job, and kept up a social life with his fraternity brothers. When Tegano began having trouble sleeping and eating he dismissed the signs of trouble. All other aspects of life appeared in order. He believed he was stronger than those who had succumbed to addiction and overdose, and strong enough to walk away when he was ready.

"That was one of the reasons why I didn't think I had problem at first, because I could do everything. I was doing all my stuff right," he said. "But that's just a cover up."

Coming up with the money to support his habit wasn't that hard, he said, nor was finding access to OxyContin. If you know where to look, it's there, he said.

Soon he started dealing, lured by the huge markups dealers were able to get away with. His greed for the money became, in his mind, more important that the drug itself.

The street value of OxyContin is usually around $1 per milligram down South, but in Juneau it is closer to $2 per milligram; an $80-gram pill here goes for $175 and up, according to the Juneau Police Department.

"Out here its crazy," Tegano said.

Though he declined to give many details about his procurement process, he said common methods included buying the pills directly from prescription holders, often the elderly, or from corrupt doctors, of which there are more than people realize, he said.

He kept increasing his intake, he said, partly because of a growing tolerance and partly because he had an abundance of Oxy on hand at all times. At the height of his problem he was consuming as many as 12 of the 80-milligram pills daily.

"I wouldn't even be able to get out of bed (without it)," he said. "I had to be sure I had some so I could wake up."

He did try to quit a couple times, but the withdrawal - throwing up and cold sweats - drew him back in.

The wake-up call came with his arrest and subsequent rehab visit in 2007. Tegano was allowed to sign himself up for treatment before serving his sentence at Lemon Creek. And that experience, combined with the support of his family, changed his life.

"It worked miracles, turned my whole life around completely, from that moment on, and I haven't done a drug since."

Gold in pill form

Although Tegano had extensive recreational experience with drugs, and pills in particular, for him no drug came close to the addictive pull of OxyContin.

He describes running out of Oxys and trying to tide himself over with heroin until he could get more.

"I ended up just throwing the heroin away because it was nothing, it didn't do anything," he said. "It was garbage."

He believes OxyContin's potency is due in part to how it was engineered to strike the brain in a very specific way.

"It's a like a super-drug, really, that's what it is," he said. "The way it was explained to me is that heroin hits your nerve endings and just brushes over them, but OxyContin is scientifically made to go right to those receptors and cover them."

Unlike Percocet, also an opiate-based pain-killer, OxyContin is pure oxycodone. Percocet contains about 5 mg of oxycodone. OxyContin most commonly comes in 40 mg and 80 mg doses.

Narcotics made with oxycodone are well known to be extremely addictive. According to a May 2007 article in The New York Times, OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma claimed upon the drug's debut in 1995 that the pill's time-release formula made it considerably less addictive than other pain medications.

That fact proved irrelevant, as recreational users of the drug soon figured out how to bypass the time-release aspect by crushing the pills - and then chewing, snorting, smoking or injecting them. Reports of abuse then became rampant across the world.

Purdue has come under heavy fire because of the drug, leading to several lawsuits. In 2007, a federal court ordered Purdue to pay more than $600 million in fines for false marketing, including the claim that the drug was less addictive and less likely to be abused than other narcotics. Three executives also were fined $34.5 million after pleading guilty to charges of misbranding.

Tegano feels that the drug's pull is so strong that it should not be used by anyone, including cancer patients for whom it is legitimately prescribed.

"Even (for) people that need it, I still don't recommend it," he said. "It will grab a hold."

OxyContin is immensely profitable for Purdue to produce. According to The New York Times, a few years after its introduction to the market annual sales reached $1 billion.

"Its gold," Tegano said. "Its gold in pill form."

Looking forward

In March 2008 after he'd been in prison for about two months, Tegano learned that his 21-year-old brother had overdosed on prescription painkillers.

"He just didn't wake up one day," he said. "I called home and found out he was gone."

The loss was particularly devastating because Tegano, fresh from rehab, had tried - successfully, he believed - to convince his brother to get help.

"I told him, 'Did I ever steer you wrong? Just listen to me this one time, I'm begging you, this is going to save you. Just listen to me.'"

But his brother didn't.

Partly because of the loss of his brother, Tegano feels driven to reach out to those who are suffering from addiction or those who are considering experimenting with the drug. He plans to go back to school in Reno and finish up his business degree, and said he will try to help the friends he knows are still addicted - though he is ready to let them go if they can't stop using.

"I want to help people, I need to help people," he said. "They have to know that they're getting into stuff and they have no idea what's going to happen. You have no clue."



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