Reformulated OxyContin Makes Abusers Switch to Heroin

Changing the medication to make it less easily abused triggered a switch to other drugs, a study finds.

The old-school version of OxyContin, shown here, was often crushed, then injected or snorted for a more intense high. (Photo: Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Jul 12, 2012
Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal and got in a boxing ring.

Sometimes the best intentions can go awry. Take OxyContin, for example. The prescription opioid was known for being widely abused, as users intensified its effects by smashing up the pills, then snorting or injecting them.

So the drug was reformulated in 2010, making the pills more difficult to crush. And it worked—sort of. While OxyContin abuse decreased significantly among a group of opioid-dependent patients after the reformulation, a marked increased was seen in heroin use.

In a letter published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine researchers analyzed survey results from 2,566 people in the U.S. who had an opioid dependence, chose prescription opioids as their main drug of abuse, and were seeking treatment.

OxyContin as the primary abused drug was chosen by 35.6 percent of the participants before the reformulation, and by only 12.8 percent 21 months later, after it was changed. When asked what opioids were used to get high in the last month at least once, OxyContin was chosen by 47.4 percent of participants at the beginning of the survey, dropping to 30 percent. However, heroin use almost doubled.

Researchers also found that 24 percent of patients found ways to get around the new version of the drug, while 66 percent simply switched to another opioid, most choosing heroin.

One patient was quoted as saying, “Most people that I know don’t use OxyContin to get high anymore. They have moved on to heroin [because] it is easier to use, much cheaper, and easily available.”

The lesson? New versions of drugs created to tamp down abuse may not always become the magic bullets they’re hoped to be, the authors said. 

What do you think is the solution to stopping prescription drug abuse? Let us know in the comments. 

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