Trevor Butterworth

The Great OxyContin Scare

Less-than-hearty congratulations to the Orlando Sentinel for finally abandoning the wreck of its investigation into OxyContin abuse. On August 1, the paper repudiated data crucial to its argument that the sustained release painkiller had become "a health menace" deserving "immediate action from doctors and officials on the state and federal level."

In short, the Sentinel wildly overestimated the number of people it claimed had died from overdoses of oxycodone (the active ingredient in OxyContin) by failing to scrutinize state law enforcement data. Most of those who died turned out to have consumed, in addition to OxyContin, a cocktail of illegal drugs.

The paper also apologized for having "created the misleading impression that most oxycodone overdoses resulted from patients taking the drug to relieve pain from medical conditions" – or to recall October's tremulous cadences of outrage, "They were legitimate patients who went to their doctors seeking relief from pain associated with an injury or sickness. Those victims put their faith in their doctors and ended up dead, or broken." (The Sentinel apologized in February for failing to note that one of those portrayed as broken by accidental addiction to OxyContin turned out to have a federal drug conviction.)

Normally, one should be grateful when news organizations are so forthright in admitting mistakes. Yet, in this case, the applause is muted, if not grudging. By portraying OxyContin as a home-grown weapon of mass destruction, the media have inflicted enormous damage to the medical community's attempts to treat chronic pain in millions of Americans.

"Investigations" such as the Sentinel's have spurred political hysteria (Governor Jeb Bush wrote to the paper saying it had "exposed a problem that is too widespread and deadly to ignore") and a draconian nation-wide campaign to take down allegedly prescription-happy doctors by the Drug Enforcement Agency and Department of Justice.

Still, at least the Sentinel apologized and corrected the record. No such correction or apology has ever issued from the New York Times for taking a leading role in prompting the idea that OxyContin was a weapon of mass destruction in the nation's heartland.

"Heck, we already know it's pretty epidemic down here," Capt. Minor Allen of the Hazard Police Department in southeastern Kentucky told Times readers in 2001 ("Cancer Painkillers Pose New Abuse Threat" by Francis X. Clines with Barry Meier, Feb 9.) "Abuse of this drug has become unbelievable in the last year, with probably 85 to 90 percent of our field work now related to oxys," he continued. "We find them carrying pill pushers that are sold in drugstores to help elderly people swallow their prescriptions."

Capt. Allen had just participated in Operation Oxyfest, the biggest drug bust in Kentucky's history. The operation was directed by Joseph L. Famularo, United States attorney for the eastern district of the state, after he became alarmed by the problem of OxyContin abuse. As he told the Times,

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