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A Prescribed Addiction, Part 1

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He was only 14. He didn't know a pill could change his life.

"It started as a recreational thing; on the weekends, parties," the teen said.

Snorting prescription painkillers seemed harmless to John, who asked we not use his real name. He-- like many teens-- didn't see the danger with these medications.

"The first time I was at a friend's house and he had got some from his parents' medicine cabinet," John said. "I was under the impression that if a doctor prescribes it, it was somewhat safe."

John, like thousands of Vermonters hooked on prescription opiates, never dreamed it would lead to a life of addiction. But quickly experimentation with Vicodin and Percocet wasn't enough. Before he finished high school John graduated to snorting OxyContin.

"I would spend 400 to 500 dollars on a night," he said.

An entire week's paycheck was funding his daily habit. The money was running out and he couldn't stop. John was no longer chasing a high but using the drugs to get through the day, keep his job and avoid getting dope sick.

"I would do an Oxy 80 then 20 minutes later do another half and then 20 minutes later do another half; vomit, nod out and keep going," he said.

"It's made to be a long-acting drug. You can just take it once or twice a day and have good pain control over a long time," explained Dr. Stephen Leffler, the chief medical officer at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.

OxyContin is the brand name of a time-released pain medication called oxycodone. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1995, the narcotic became a miracle pill for chronic pain patients. By 2001 it was best-selling non-generic painkiller on the market. U.S. sales topped $2.5 billion in 2008. In Vermont today it's the most widely abused drug behind alcohol. More than 2,200 people sought treatment last year-- 15 times more than a decade ago.

"What people figured out was if you crush that pill up you can have a rapid high from that medication," Leffler said.

Addicts say if you have the cash and know where to look scoring pills is easy.

"I knew people who doctor shopped." John said. "Somebody broke their leg, broke their arm, they would take what they needed for a couple days then sell the rest... And then I knew other people who would go and have teeth pulled to get the pills to sell them."

Black market sales of diverted prescription pills are big business in Vermont. On the street, Oxys sell for $1 per milligram. For an addict, it's an expensive high.

"An opiate is an opiate," said Bob Bick of the HowardCenter. "If you can't get the prescription drug, you're going to look for something else."

"For someone that's addicted to opiates, to pills, heroin is cheaper," Vt. State Police Capt. Glenn Hall said.

And since the chemical composition of heroin and prescription opiates is the same, health professionals say average people who never thought they would be addicts are bouncing between the drugs. Police say that's driving the resurgence of heroin in Vermont.

"What we're seeing is users who are interchangeably using prescription opiates or heroin, whatever is available, whatever's cheapest," said Barbara Cimaglio of the Vt. Health Department.

John's intense fear of needles kept him from shooting up. But when he learned purer heroin could be snorted, he was hooked.

"It was the same effect as the OxyContin but times 10," he said. "I was doing 10 bags a day."

John says it was usually easy to get.

"And even if you couldn't find it, you could just take a ride for four hours and go get it," he said.

The highway to heroin leads many Vermont addicts to Massachusetts; Springfield, Holyoke, Boston and Lowell. There the smack is cheaper-- $5-$7 a bag compared to $30-$35 in Vermont.

"I could take $70 and turn it into $300 if I wanted to," John said.

He hooked up with a few other users and they started trafficking the drugs across state lines to support their own addictions. But their luck was running out.

"I know two people who overdosed... I got paranoid that it would trace back to me," John said. "About three months later my connection in Massachusetts got busted by the feds."

He calls heroin the devil's doorway; opened by a prescribed addiction even if the doctor never intended for the drugs to end up in his teenage hands.

"Whatever you have for good things in your life right now-- that will take it," John said. "Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not the next week. But you'll lose it. You'll lose it all."

John is just one of the thousands of Vermonters who struggle with opiate addiction. Vermont ranks second only to Maine for per capita admissions for painkiller treatment.

Related Stories:

A Prescribed Addiction, Part 2

A Prescribed Addiction, Part 3

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