New task force targets addiction to painkillers



City News Service

A newly formed multi-agency task force will fight the growing problem of painkiller addiction — specifically Oxycontin — among children and teens across San Diego, officials announced Monday.

“We’re seeing users as young as 12,” District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said. “The main goal of this task force is to stop this runaway train.”

Dumanis, who called the growing problem an “epidemic,” said the district attorney’s office prosecuted 34 Oxycontin-related cases in 2007.

Since last November, there have been nearly 200 Oxycontin related arrests in the region.

“Oxycontin is not new, but it is being consumed at a really high rate by kids in our community,” said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore.

Officials also made it clear that methamphetamine remains a problem in the county — the multi-task force group addressing that issue is still active — and that the battle against painkillers does not diminish law enforcement efforts against other drugs.

Instead, officials described Oxycontin as an emerging problem. U.S. Attorney Karen Hewitt said there will be more Oxycontin drug trafficking cases in federal court in the coming months.

“We want to cut it off at the source,” she said.

Under federal sentencing guideless, two prescription bottles containing 200 Oxycontin pills is equal to about 374 pounds of marijuana, and someone found guilty of trafficking that amount faces five to six years in prison, Hewitt said.

Oxycontin, which is derived from Oxycodone, is a painkiller prescribed for moderate to severe pain. Oxycontin is a highly addictive opiate and can be lucrative for drug dealers, said Ralph Partridge, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s San Diego field office.

Oxycontin can be sold on the street for $65 a pill — nearly twice its wholesale price, according to Partridge.

The problem with Oxycontin is that children can first be exposed to it from a home medicine cabinet, he said. Once the pills are gone, it’s not hard for addicts to switch to heroin, which is cheaper, Partridge said.

San Diego County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price said Oxycontin “seems to be quasi-legitimate and innocent, but Oxycontin is the most potent.”

Children and teens who are hooked on Oxycontin don’t “meet your normal profile,” said Dr. Sean O’Hara, an addiction specialist with Alvarado Parkway Institute Hospital.

The average profile of an Oxycontin addict is 15 to 30 years old. It’s not unusual for an addict to be a college student or an athlete, he said.

Because Oxycontin doesn’t have a lingering smell like marijuana or leave addicts with track marks on their arms, it’s also difficult at times for parents to monitor their children for possible drug abuse, O’Hara said.

Oxycontin is seen as the drug of choice among middle to upper middle class teens, experts said.

Slater-Price, whose district includes neighborhoods such as Torrey Pines and Rancho Bernardo, said Oxycontin abuse is a growing problem in her district.

“It’s a big problem in Torrey Pines High School,” she said, but did not provide hard numbers.

The task force, which includes area law enforcement agencies, rehabilitation centers and local universities, will meet several times a month. Its focus includes law enforcement but also education and prevention.