Officials: Oxy 'epidemic' appears to be tapering

Police: Problem not over, but community is making progress

Posted: Sunday, November 29, 2009

Although there is no quantitative data available to pinpoint exactly how prevalent the OxyContin "epidemic" presently is in Juneau, from an anecdotal standpoint, the opiate-based drug appears to be less problematic now in the capital than it had been several months ago, according to local officials.

"It does appear that the Oxy issue has leveled off, if not reduced a little bit, from earlier this year," Juneau Police Department spokesman Dave Campbell said.

The are a number of factors that Campbell believes has led to this possible downturn of OxyContin use, including more community awareness, arrests of drug dealers, the high school random drug testing program, community forums and hard work by the JPD metro drug unit.

"The issue of Oxy use is beginning to become more stigmatized to the point where I don't think people view it as they used to," he said.

One thing that makes it difficult to determine how prevalent OxyContin use is in Juneau is because the drug is considered a vice crime involving multiple participants on both sides of a drug transaction, Campbell said.

"So the amount of reporting that goes on is low," he said. "You don't have someone call up and say, 'I just bought this controlled drug.'"

Police tend to rely heavily on informants who can provide information about drug sales and use in Juneau, which can wax and wane at any given time, Campbell said.

"It could be the problem is still every bit as bad as it has been and we just don't have the level of informants we had earlier this year," he said. "I don't believe that to be the case. I think we have seen a leveling off, if not a slight decline, but I don't have any way to prove that."

Juneau District Attorney Doug Gardner said there are fewer cases involving the sale of OxyContin coming across his desk these days.

"There have been fewer cases involving new arrests on people dealing the drug," he said. "I think that JPD and the troopers have put a lot of effort into community safety from the standpoint of focusing on the problem, given how big the problem has been and the impact it has on so many people."

But that doesn't mean the OxyContin problem is no longer a serious issue, Gardner said.

"I would have to say, as with any epidemic, it fluctuates and I wouldn't want anybody to feel like the problem is gone," he said.

Both Campbell and Gardner believe that the high numbers of burglaries in recent months are an indication of how serious the problem is. Many of the burglaries have involved targeting of medicine cabinets in homes, Gardner said.

Campbell said the present street value of an 80-milligram pill of OxyContin is about $200, a higher cost than before, but not quite back at its peak value earlier this year.

"The cost reflects the risks of its transportation, sale and ultimate availability," Gardner said. "If the price of the pill is up, it is simply a supply and demand thing. And if the price is up it has the intended benefit of reducing supply. The problem is that in order to pay for the higher price drug we do get into burglaries and that is a real concern."

Although there have been recent arrests involving cocaine, heroin and methadone, Campbell doesn't believe there has been a general shift of drug preference by users.

"You can go back to the '80s when it was cocaine," he said. "In the late '80s it was crack cocaine and then in the '90s there was a meth problem and now we're dealing with this Oxy problem. I think Oxy is still the main drug of choice that we're dealing with, but they're all present in this town."

The only way to address an issue of such magnitude in the community is through a collaborative effort, Campbell said.

"It's not something just the police department is going to solve," he said. "I'm encouraged by the collaborative effort that is going on right now. It is encouraging to me, but I'm also a realist and I know there is some other drug around the corner that is going to be the next big drug. Who would have predicted in the '90s that we'd have this Oxy issue? You never can tell."

The community should remain vigilant against the OxyContin epidemic, Gardner said.

"The concerns are still there," he said. "I think all the people that are working toward solutions at the high school - educators, coaches, parents - just need to stay on it because it's just not a problem that's gone."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at523-2269.

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