This Drug Can Kill You
was supposed to be a miracle prescription for chronic pain.
Now it is rapidly becoming a street drug of choiceand
Dively will never forget the first time he met his best
friend, Jesse Gifford. Dively was 12 years old when he moved
next door to Gifford on Route 405 in Greenville.
was two years younger than me,” says Dively. “I was riding
around on my four-wheeler when I saw this punk-ass kid standing
on the seat of his dirt bike. I knew I liked him right off
From that day forward, Kevin, Jesse and Jason, Kevin’s older
brother, formed a friendship that they all thought would
last a lifetime. As they got older, their interests turned
from dirt bikes, skateboards and four-wheelers to music.
By the time Gifford was 16, the three of them formed their
first rock band, called the Boogie Woogie Bums. They later
became known as the Derogatories, a punk band, and started
playing the local bar scene in Albany. Soon they branched
out of the area and traveled the country, learning what
it was like to scrape by on a sometimes-working musician’s
Just as Kevin proudly remembers the many funny, frightening
and unforgettable stories of their life on the road and
in Albany, he also sadly remembers the last night that he
saw his 23-year-old best friend alive, back on July 13.
met up at the Blues Festival this summer at the plaza,”
Dively explains. “As soon as I saw him, I knew he was kind
of messed up, but I wasn’t sure exactly what he was on.”
Dively says that Jesse later admitted to him that he was
high on the drug OxyContin, a prescription painkiller.
remember he had tried OxyContin before, but he said he was
really freaked out by how strong it was so he threw it away
except for a few pills,” says Dively. “But that night he
had the tablet broken up into pieces. He was taking little
bits of it throughout the night. And before he left the
bar I was told that he took another tablet whole.”
Dively says he thinks Gifford got the pills from some guy
who worked as a pharmaceutical distributor.
After the Blues Festival, they all went out to Smitty’s
Tavern on Washington Avenue. Dively says it was a great
night because the guys in the band decided, after a two-year
hiatus, to get back together.
came up with a few ground rules that night,” says Dively.
“For one, no more partying, we were going to be serious
about our music. I know this made Jesse really happy because
the band meant everything to him. Jesse was the kind of
guy who did everything to extremes, so when it came to music
he would go over the top. If he had a date he would break
it to play music. The band always came first.”
But the next morning, when Dively was eating breakfast at
Quintessence and reminiscing about the night before, he
received a phone call.
was Jesse’s girlfriend and she just said that he was not
breathing,” recalls Dively. “We all flew over to his apartment
as fast as we could. When we arrived, there were two cops
at the front door. They wouldn’t let us in. They just asked
what kind of drugs was Jesse on. When I told them OxyContin,
the cops’ reply was, ‘Oxy what?’”
had no idea that this could kill him, and I don’t think
that Jesse did either,” says Dively. “I don’t think Jesse
wanted to die. I just don’t think he knew the power of the
drug that he was taking. And I don’t think that other people
know how dangerous this drug is as well.”
While the coroner’s report has not yet been released confirming
the actual cause of Gifford’s death, his parents, Randy
and Yvonne, are convinced that the senseless loss of their
son’s life was the result of an overdose from the drug OxyContin.
lives: Randy Gifford holds a photo of his son Jesse.
Photo by Joe Putrock.
never even heard of this drug before,” said Randy Gifford,
Jesse’s father. “I don’t know why more people are not warned
about it. Since my son’s death, many people have come forth
and told me stories of people that they know that have died
from this or that are addicted to the drug.”
While Jesse’s story may sound strange to the people who
have never heard of OxyContin, the abuse of this prescription
painkiller has been creeping its way into cities and suburbs
across the eastern United States for the last five years.
Abuse of the drug was first reported in remote communities
in Appalachia and rural Maine, but many are saying that
this pill is quickly becoming the drug of choice for young
people in the Albany area.
I spoke to the coroner about Jesse’s death,” says Dively,
“he told me this was the third overdose from this drug he
has seen recently. People have no idea how addictive this
drug is and how deadly it is. People just think it’s another
party drug, but they are dying from it.”
OxyContin, OX, Oxy, killer, hillbilly heroin and poor-man’s
heroin are just a few of the many street names that people
call the drug. First introduced in 1996 by Purdue Pharma
L.P., the drug was thought of as a miracle pill for those
suffering from chronic pain.
addiction: Dr. Bruce Maslack, specialist at St. Marys
Hospital. Photo by Joe
was the first drug of this kind,” says Dr. Bruce Maslack,
an addiction specialist at St. Mary’s Hospital in Amsterdam,
“that could give people the long-lasting pain relief that
they needed, without the groggy effects that they would
obtain from other, stronger painkillers because of the drug’s
time-release mechanism that allows patients to get the medicine
in small doses over a long period of time.”
But the drug that was once praised for its potent ability
to help manage pain is quickly gaining the reputation as
the country’s most pernicious street drug.
According to Maslack, the high that most people chase is
from OxyContin’s most active ingredient, oxycodone, an opioid
or synthetic opiate, which is found in other pain-relief
drugs like Percodan and Tylox. However, OxyContin contains
a much higher concentration of oxycodone than other prescribed
medicines. Where painkillers such as Tylox may contain 5
milligrams of oxycodone, OxyContin can include between 10
and 80 milligrams, depending on the dosage.
Maslack says that when used properly, the pill is swallowed
whole. It can alleviate discomfort for up to 12 hours, the
longest-lasting pain relief medicine on the market to date.
Doctors prescribe the drug for severe or chronic pain often
associated with cancer or back injuries. But those who are
taking the drug for recreational purposes are crushing it
up to eliminate its time-release capsule. Maslack adds that
by doing this, users receive a full dose of the drug at
once, giving them a euphoric high very similar to that found
in other opiates like heroin and morphine. Abusers chew,
sniff or shoot up the drug.
pain-medication purposes, chronic-pain problems, this drug
is a very effective way to deliver the medicine,” says Maslack.
“The problem is that you can easily defeat the sustained
release by chewing up or grinding up the time tablet. Then
all bets are off to how much you are getting at once.”
This, he explains, is why most people are overdosing from
the drug. “The user is getting all that was supposed to
be delivered in a 12-hour period at once, because you have
sort of beat the system,” says Maslack. “The question then
becomes, are you tolerant enough so that you don’t have
respiratory depression, the common way that people die from
OxyContin is highly addictive if it is not taken as prescribed.
The user develops a physical dependency to the drug, causing
withdrawal symptoms very similar to those of heroin abuse,
which include violent flulike symptoms. Maslack adds that
he has not seen a large amount of OxyContin abuse in this
area so far, compared to where he used to work in rural
big drug around here seems to be heroin,” said Maslack.
“When I practiced in Maine it was OxyContin because
heroin was less available. It’s a matter of availability.
This drug is widely distributed as a pain medication, so
you can get it everywhere. You can’t get heroin everywhere.”
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s Web site,
as of Nov. 1, 2001, medical examiners in 31 states reported
1,096 overdose deaths involving oxycodone. The reports verify
that 117 of those deaths were the result of OxyContin. Statistics
were not available for the drug’s use specifically in the
Albany area, or for New York state. But the Drug Abuse Warning
Network reports that oxycodone-related deaths and emergency-room
visits more than tripled since 1996, when the drug was first
put on the market. In 2000, the organization reported approximately
10,825 oxycodone-related ER visits, resulting in 268 deaths,
compared to 51 deaths in 1996.
there was one drug I could do that would not be dangerous,
I’d be doing OxyContin all the time,” says Michael, a 17-year-old
Albany resident. “You are just so relaxed, it’s not even
right. I can’t imagine anyone having pain that bad that
they would need a drug so strong.”
The first time Michael tried the drug, he was living in
Pennsylvania. His friend stole the pills from his uncle,
who had a prescription because of chronic back pain. But
usually, he adds, it’s easy to buy it if you know where
to look. Michael explains that the pill comes in different
doses ranging from 10 to 80 milligrams. The color of the
pill also varies depending on the prescribed amount. On
one side is the number of milligrams, and on the other are
the letters OC.
cost around $20 to $30 dollars a pill, depending on the
dosage,” says Michael. “I am not sure exactly how long the
high lasts because I pass out every time I take it. All
the warning out there about this drug is for real. It is
dangerous, and I can see how it could become very addictive,
because anybody who would try it would like it and would
want to do it again.”
Angel, a 32-year-old OxyContin addict, knows all too well
how easy it is to become hooked on the drug. She moved to
Troy two years ago from Tampa, Fla., to get off OxyContin.
But just this past summer, she relapsed on the drug and
has had a hard time staying clean ever since. “When I first
moved here, nobody ever even heard of the drug,” says Angel.
“But now I wouldn’t say that it is everywhere, but you sure
can find it.”
Angel says that she first tried the drug at a nightclub
in Tampa, but it wasn’t until she started looking after
her grandmother, who is dying from cancer, that she started
to form an addiction.
had heard about the drug, and noticed that was what my grandmother
was taking,” says Angel. “This drug has made me do things
that I never dreamed of doing.”
Angel says that at first she would steal one or two pills
from her grandmother’s prescription bottle. But she quickly
started to develop a tolerance and needed more to feed her
I was stealing five or 10 at a time from her and replacing
them with other medicine like aspirin or whatever I could
find that looked like her prescription,” says Angel. “After
a while, I was giving her aspirin, watching her screaming
in pain and telling her I had no idea why her pain medicine
wasn’t working. Meanwhile, I was high as a kite, nodding
off, wishing that she would just settle down.”
Patty Wilcok, clinical director at Conifer Park, a drug
treatment facility in Glenville, says that she has seen
a rise in clients who abuse OxyContin, especially teenagers.
have seen a large increase in the past year,” she explains,
“mostly in our adolescent unit. But it is hard to say how
many come in addicted to just this drug, because with younger
people, there is usually more than one addiction”
explains that many people, especially adolescents, don’t
realize the danger in abusing pharmaceutical drugs because
it doesn’t hold the same connotation as “hard drugs” like
heroin or crack cocaine.
really tricky,” says Wilcok. “The fact that it doesn’t hold
the same stigma as heroin leads to part of the problem.
Heroin addicts that sniff the drug think that they are not
so bad because they are not shooting it up. OxyContin addicts
think they are not so bad because they are not doing heroin
or crack. The problem is that they are playing a dangerous
game, and they either develop a serious addiction or die
from an overdose.”
Joseph LaCoppola, program director at Whitney Young
Methadone Maintenance Program, says that he hasn’t seen
many people seeking treatment for OxyContin addiction. But,
he explains, this may be because it takes time for an addiction
to develop in a community before people start seeking services.
am concerned that it can become the next big drug,” says
LaCoppola. “When I was at a program down in Alabama, OxyContin
was the primary drug of choice for most patients. There
is a concern that it may spread to New York.”
Wilcok adds that the possibility of OxyContin infiltrating
this area is very likely, especially since her facility
sees many patients from Vermont, where OxyContin seems to
be taking the state by storm. An article written in The
New York Times on July 21 says that Vermont actually
has cut off state welfare funding for OxyContin because
of its high levels of abuse.
am not sure why this drug is so prevalent in Vermont,” she
adds,” but many of the clients that we see from there are
addicted to the drug.”
Word on the street is that the drug is already here and
is becoming more popular by the day. “It’s not hard to find
it,” says Jody, 23, who lives in Albany. “It seems like
this summer it became the thing to do. It went from people
saying ‘Oxy what?’ to saying ‘So-and-so has some OxyContin,
let’s go party.’”
cowboy: Watervliet Pharmacy was robbed for OxyContin.
Photo by Joe Putrock.
some local treatment facilities may not be seeing an influx
of OxyContin addicts, drugstores across the nation are.
The DEA reports an increase in the number of robberies of
pharmacies and residences specifically for OxyContin. Just
this past April, Watervliet Pharmacy was robbed by a man
with a gun seeking OxyContin. Kelly Gilchrist was working
the night that the robbery took place. She said that the
man entered the store around 8:15 and was shopping for greeting
cards. At 8:30, just before closing, he handed the pharmacist
a note that stated that he had a gun and wanted OxyContin.
saw the handle of his gun sticking out of his pants,” she
says. “So we unlocked the draw where we kept the OxyContin
and he took all of the bottles that we had. He then apologized
and walked out of the store.”
She explained that as a result of the robbery, the pharmacy
will carry the drug only if it has a special order to fill
for a customer.
James Miller, spokesman for the Albany Police Department,
says that this is a difficult drug to control because of
the way in which it is distributed.
not your typical street drug,” he says. “It’s not being
sold on the street corner where you can visually see it,
like a simple investigation. This takes more time, more
investigative work to delve into it.”
He explains that the whole sector of users is difficult
to infiltrate, because it is the college crowd that, he
says, secludes themselves.
is not the easiest atmosphere to get into from a street
perspective,” says Miller. “We have our eye on it. We are
aware that it is out there, but as far as a priority goes
right now, its use has not risen to the point where we can
just take all of our resources and focus specifically on
that right now.”
But for Purdue Pharma, prevention and education has quickly
become its latest public relations campaign. Jim Heins,
associate director of public affairs at Purdue, says that
his organization has been working with various law
enforcement agencies and with the medical community on
prevention and education efforts that, he hopes, will curb
the abuse while still making sure that the medication is
available to the patients who need it.
One method under consideration is to put the narcotic blocker
naloxone in OxyContin tablets. If the tablets are crushed
and then sniffed or injected, naloxone would enter the bloodstream
to block OxyContin’s effects. But Heins said that even clinical
trails for this approach are years away.
are 50 million Americans that are living in chronic pain,”
said Heins. “The vast majority of that pain is undertreated,
so undertreated pain is the real national health problem
and all of the focus and attention on diversion and abuse
of OxyContin, while valid, is actually having a negative
impact on the treatment of pain.”
But many lawmakers and other officials have accused the
pharmaceutical giant of being too successful at promoting
its drug. According to an article written in The Miami
Herald on Dec. 13, 2001, Asa Hutchingson, a DEA administrator,
told a House Appropriations subcommittee that the drugmaker’s
aggressive marketing practices have made the drug readily
available. The Herald reported that the number of
OxyContin prescriptions nationally has grown to 5.8 million.
Paul Goldenheim, Purdue’s executive vice president, responded
by saying that the allegations were untrue. He told the
committee that the company has worked with the Food and
Drug Administration to strengthen warnings on OxyContin
package inserts and helped law-enforcement officials develop
placebo tablets used in sting operations.
But many members of Congress are unconvinced and have sought
an investigation into how the manufacturer marketed and
promoted the powerful painkiller. And some state legislatures
have proposed stringent laws to deal with the OxyContin
epidemic in their streets. The Wall Street Journal
reported in February 2002 that lawmakers in Florida, Ohio
and Pennsylvania have pitched proposals to tighten physicians’
standards for prescribing the medicine, set up prescription-tracking
systems to catch fraudulent users, and strengthen sentencing
laws for offenders. In Maine, tougher penalties have been
enacted for illegally selling OxyContin and other prescription
For Randy and Yvette Gif-ford, all the legislation and research
in the world can’t turn back the hands of time and protect
their only child from what happened to him on the morning
of July 14. Their only consolation, they say, is that others
will learn from Jesse’s tragic life cut short.
morning that I heard the news of Jesse’s death just keeps
flashing in my mind,” says Yvette Gifford, tears streaming
down her face. “My stepdad called me over and said Jesse
went to sleep last night and he didn’t wake up. He is at
Albany Med and he is dead. I felt like running but I didn’t
have anywhere to go. This is something that no parent should
ever have to go through.”
just doesn’t make sense,” says Randy Gifford. “It is not
supposed to happen this way. All of the dreams and hopes
that we had for our son are gone and nothing can bring him
back. We just hope that one person can learn from what happened
to Jesse so another family doesn’t have to live with the
pain and sadness that we are dealing with as a result of