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Drug take-back program a ‘success’

Staff and wire reports

A prescription drug take back day on Saturday was labeled “a great success” by a spokeswoman for County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, who co-sponsored the event as part of the recently announced Oxycontin Task Force effort.

The newly formed multi-agency task force was created to fight the growing problem of painkiller addiction — specifically Oxycontin — among children and teens across San Diego, officials said.

“We’re seeing users as young as 12,” District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said at the press conference announcing the group. “The main goal of this task force is to stop this runaway train.”

Dumanis, who called the growing problem an “epidemic,” said the district attorney’s office prosecuted 34 Oxycontin-related cases in 2007. Since last November, there have been nearly 200 Oxycontin related arrests in the region.

Oxycontin, which is derived from Oxycodone, is a painkiller prescribed for moderate to severe pain. Oxycontin is a highly addictive opiate and can be lucrative for drug dealers, said Ralph Partridge, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s San Diego field office.

Oxycontin can be sold on the street for $65 a pill - nearly twice its wholesale price, according to Partridge.

The problem with Oxycontin is that children can first be exposed to it from a home medicine cabinet, he said. Once the pills are gone, it’s not hard for addicts to switch to heroin, which is cheaper, Partridge said.

Saturday’s event, at five locations including the Del Mar Fairgrounds, was designed so people could drop off unused and unwanted prescription medication — no questions asked — and provide them with drug prevention and treatment information.

Erica Holloway, communications director for Slater-Price, said, about 200 people came and about “20, large-sized sheriff’s evidence boxes of pill bottles, prescription liquids and needles” were collected.

Holloway said it would be determined this week just how many pounds of drugs were collected.

‘This is the first time in San Diego County people had the opportunity to clean out their medicine cabinets,” she noted.

There will likely be other such events.

“Every response from people who showed up tells us we have to do this again,” she said. “There’s great need, and it helps bring awareness to a societal problem. We’ll do this as many times as necessary as money becomes available. Funding is the issue.”

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, speaking at the recent press conference said, “Oxycontin is not new, but it is being consumed at a really high rate by kids in our community.”

Officials also made it clear that methamphetamine remains a problem in the county — the multi-task force group addressing that issue is still active — and that the battle against painkillers does not diminish law enforcement efforts against other drugs.

Instead, officials described Oxycontin as an emerging problem. U.S. Attorney Karen Hewitt said there will be more Oxycontin drug trafficking cases in federal court in the coming months.

“We want to cut it off at the source,” she said.

Under federal sentencing guideless, two prescription bottles containing 200 Oxycontin pills is equal to about 374 pounds of marijuana, and someone found guilty of trafficking that amount faces five to six years in prison, Hewitt said.

Slater-Price said Oxycontin “seems to be quasi-legitimate and innocent, but Oxycontin is the most potent.”

Children and teens who are hooked on Oxycontin don’t “meet your normal profile,’” said Dr. Sean O’Hara, an addiction specialist with Alvarado Parkway Institute Hospital.

The average profile of an Oxycontin addict is 15 to 30 years old. It’s not unusual for an addict to be a college student or an athlete, he said.

Because Oxycontin doesn’t have a lingering smell like marijuana or leave addicts with track marks on their arms, it’s also difficult at times for parents to monitor their children for possible drug abuse, O’Hara said.

Oxycontin is seen as the drug of choice among middle to upper middle class teens, experts said.

Slater-Price, whose district includes neighborhoods such as Torrey Pines, La Jolla and Rancho Bernardo, said Oxycontin abuse is a growing problem in her district.

The task force, which includes area law enforcement agencies, rehabilitation centers and local universities, will meet several times a month. Its focus includes law enforcement but also education and prevention.

City News Service contributed to this report.