OxyContin Abusers Switched To Heroin After Pills Were Reformulated

HeroinA new formulation of OxyContin makes inhaling or injecting the drug more difficult, so drug abusers are turning instead to heroin.

Photo: US Drug Enforcement Administration

OxyContin abusers use the drug to get high, but when drug makers changed the formula to make it more difficult to inject or inhale, many abusers switched to heroin, a new study finds. Heroin is potentially more dangerous to users, is illegal and often is contaminated.OxyContin is a slow-release form of the generic pain medication oxycodone produced by Purdue Pharma. Because it’s meant to be released over time, it contains much larger amounts of the drug’s active ingredients. OxyContin was reformulated in 2010 to make the pills more difficult to crush and take longer to dissolve, to make the drug less attractive to those abusing it.

The researchers wanted to see how this change impacted OxyContin users, so they collected information on more than 2,500 patients from 150 treatment centres in 39 states. They published their data today, July 11, in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Our data show that OxyContin use by inhalation or intravenous administration has dropped significantly since that abuse-deterrent formulation came onto the market,” study researcher Theodore Cicero, a professor of neuropharmacology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said in a statement from the university. “In that sense, the new formulation was very successful.”

They saw a decrease from 35.6 per cent of respondents abusing primarily OxyContin to 12.8 per cent after the new formulation hit the market. When asked which drug they used to get high in the past 30 days, OxyContin fell from 47.4 per cent of respondents to 30 per cent. During the same time period, reported use of heroin nearly doubled.

“The most unexpected, and probably detrimental, effect of the abuse-deterrent formulation was that it contributed to a huge surge in the use of heroin, which is like OxyContin in that it also is inhaled or injected,” he says. “We’re now seeing reports from across the country of large quantities of heroin appearing in suburbs and rural areas. Unable to use OxyContin easily, which was a very popular drug in suburban and rural areas, drug abusers who prefer snorting or IV drug administration now have shifted either to more potent opioids, if they can find them, or to heroin.”

This could be why police are seeing a surge of heroin use in the suburbs and around the nation, the researchers said.

“This trend toward increases in heroin use is important enough that we want to get the word out to physicians, regulatory officials and the public, so they can be aware of what’s happening,” Cicero says. “Heroin is a very dangerous drug, and dealers always ‘cut’ the drug with something, with the result that some users will overdose. As users switch to heroin, overdoses may become more common.”

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