Hillbilly heroin hits S.F. streets

 While abuse of the prescription drug Oxycontin has exploded onto the American drug scene in recent years, San Francisco and the Bay Area had largely escaped the epidemic.

No longer, according to enforcement and treatment sources, as the chronic pain medication sometimes referred to as "hillbilly heroin" has made serious inroads into San Francisco. The prescription drug is now rivaling its more infamous cousin heroin in terms of prevalence on the streets of The City and the problem is only getting worse, according to police.

Oxycontin is the brand name for the pain relieving synthetic drug oxycodone hydrochloride, and, like heroin, is derived from opium and therefore potentially highly addictive. It was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma in 1995 as a chronic pain reliever, and was highly successful because its unique time-release capsule allows the dosage to provide consistent, 12-hour pain relief.

Unfortunately, despite its success for legitimate treatment, another, more dangerous use of Oxycontin was discovered. The pills, which sell for up to $20 each on the street, produce a potent, euphoric high when crushed up and either taken orally, sniffed or diluted in water and injected.

"It's a huge problem, and it hasn't gotten any better," said Arthur Bosse, the executive director of the San Francisco branch of the National Council on Alcoholism & Other Drug Addictions.

The NCADA has seen a steady rise in Oxycontin addiction for the last two years, according to Bosse. The high has been described as similar to heroin, and abuse has spread from pockets in rural Maine since 2000, to areas around the country. Oxycontin abuse has received even greater media attention recently since allegations of abuse by conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh emerged.

"It's starting to become like heroin," said Officer John Kasper of the San Francisco Police Department's Narcotics Division. "People use it who don't want to use heroin and think [Oxycontin] is safer for them it's just as dangerous, and I've talked to some people on the street who say the addiction seems to be worse."

There has been a steady rise in prevalence of the drug in the last two years, according to Kasper, to the point where the Narcotics Division is making up to 30 arrests per week.

Oxycontin abuse was slow to hit San Francisco because of the Bay Area's access to the oft-cheaper and more potent heroin imported from Mexico and China, according to Remi Barbier, the CEO of South San Francisco-based Pain Theraputics, Inc.

Barbier said that stricter regulations in California requiring doctors to fill out forms in triplicate when prescribing Oxycontin, as well as doctors becoming more aware of the dangers of prescription drug abuse has also slowed its spread.

Dealers have been caught with fake prescriptions and have also acquired the drug from patients with legitimate prescriptions, according to Kasper.

Many dealers have discovered that they will not receive stiff penalties for pill charges from a district attorney's office that Kasper claimed did not take the threat seriously.

Elizabeth Aguilar-Tarchi, the managing attorney for the Narcotics Division in the DA's office, said they have not prosecuted many cases related to Oxycontin abuse because many of those arrested have no prior records.

"We're not going to clog an already clogged court system," Aquilar-Tarchi said. " If [those arrested for Oxycontin] have no prior record, of course they won't go to prison."