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Drug Company Profiteering, Pill Mills and Thousands of Addicts: How Oxycontin Has Spread Through America

Corruption down the line, from Big Pharma to doctors and the war on drugs, builds a growing epidemic and an addiction-fueled empire.

I left a very white, very affluent Philadelphia suburb for NYU in 2007. When I go home, Oxys always come up in conversation with friends: Who got really "bad" (and can you believe it was him?!), who started selling, or what new pill-based friendship is the strangest. On one visit, I found pens gutted to be used as straws (to snort pills) and tin foil in my old best friend’s bedroom, to smoke Oxys.

In Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, suburban moms and dads enjoy a short commute to the city and send their kids off to a “Blue Ribbon School of Excellence” to prepare them for the educational institutions to which they aspire. Aside from school and work and partying in big houses, there is not much to do.

Boredom tends to inspire some creative takes on “fun.”  Out of my town, for example, came the Jackass crew. Their worm snorting and reckless self-injury (shocking their testicles, paper-cutting their eyelids) might not have occurred if they had the resources of a city. When Jackass star Ryan Dunn died in a drunk-driving accident June 20, he crashed his car on Route 322, a road members of my community use regularly.

Drugs are another common way to escape boredom. Pop one pill and working at the local pizza parlor after school might not be such a drag.

Of all the prescription pills people used – Xanax, Klonopin, Percocet, Vicodin, Adderrall, Rittalin, Codeine  – OxyContin, the brand name for slow-release oxycodone,  is king. The most potent painkiller of its class (opioids like codeine, Percocet and Vicodin), Oxys are what you graduate to. Being hooked on percs wouldn’t make sense. Eventually, as tolerance increases and more pills are needed (not just to get high but to avoid withdrawal) Oxys seem like the way to go.

My generation Y, also called the Echo-Boomers, grew up on pills:  anti-depressants, ADHD medication like Ritalin, sleeping pills, anti-anxiety meds. Nearly as commonplace as being on prescriptions was sharing them, whether they were your own, your little brother’s, or something you found in your parents’ medicine cabinet.

At parties, no one said anything but “let me get some” as kids crushed and snorted pills off coffee tables, then blacked out and cruised through the night. Being so out in the open about it was a way to be cool, to establish yourself as a bad-ass, or make friends by sharing.

Pills were not only visible at parties. School was sometimes a comical display of who got too fucked up that morning. Kids would walk aimlessly in the hallway, fall off chairs, fall asleep, and often, be escorted to the nurse’s office and punished or arrested.

Finding the pills for a party or school day was not particularly difficult because there are enough Oxys in circulation for dealers to maintain stock.  Some sources (not all) claim opioids have become the most commonly prescribed drug category in the United States. Furthermore, 15 percent to 20 percent of doctor office visits in the United States included the prescription of an opioid, and 4 million Americans per year are prescribed a long-acting opioid. The network to find these pills is strong and loyal because, as OxyContin users know, the withdrawal is so bad addicts will do almost anything to find it. The jocks, the cheerleaders, the shy kids, and the rebels – they were all exchanging connects, drugs and tips to get high. Eventually, many of them started to sell drugs to finance their own addictions, creating another network of unlikely drug dealers.