Scare-Mongering Over 'Hillybilly Heroin' Deprives the Rest of Us

Substance abusers have a problem the rest of us should be penalized for. That seems to be the liberal view, anyway.

Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine featured a cover story about OxyContin, a wonder drug for chronic pain caused by cancer, other diseases and injuries.

Despite the medication's controlled distribution, some rural-area drug abusers discovered they could get high by crushing OxyContin pills — thereby thwarting the time-release mechanism — and then snorting the powder. The discovery sparked a wave of abuse of illegally obtained OxyContin.

Unverified media reports of deaths attributed to OxyContin abuse surfaced, leading to a new species of victim: the "hillbilly heroin" addict.

The reports of deaths allegedly due to OxyContin abuse are suspect, though. In the vast majority of cases, the victims were also abusing other drugs.

Of the 59 deaths in Kentucky last year supposedly linked to OxyContin, the state medical examiner wrote, "I am unaware of any reliable data in Kentucky that proves OxyContin is causing a lot of deaths ... we are seeing an increase in the number of deaths from ingesting several different prescription drugs and mixing them with alcohol. OxyContin is sometimes one of those drugs."

But why allow inconvenient facts to clutter a gripping liberal saga?

The Times' story starts with the account of "Paula," a "thoughtful, good-natured 24-year-old with wispy blond hair, serious eyes and faded jeans." But Paula apparently wasn't "thoughtful" enough to avoid snorting up to five illegally-obtained OxyContin pills per day.

The suppliers of illicit OxyContin are portrayed sympathetically. "It's so weird the people that got into this. Some of them were innocent mothers ... one who was in her 60s. She never did drugs,. She'd sell every last one of her pills, and ... pay for all her other medication," said a trafficker named "Curt," — incidentally, "a man of boundless energy and focus."

What's boundless is the Times' unmitigated sympathy for drug abusers.

"No one knew what was going on. These are just a bunch of pot smokers, drinkers, just mellow people. This drug took us by storm," added Curt. One user named "B." "looked like every disaffected college kid in America" and was a model of virtue.

After reports of OxyContin abuse made doctors anxious about prescribing the drug, supplies dried up and prices rose. Did B. quit? Nope. He economized.

"I was spending a hundred bucks a day on oxy. That's why I switched to heroin. You get really high off ... 30 bucks a day. That's a big savings," he said.

Of course, addiction is never the addict's fault.

"Andy" told the Times, "If I'd never touched OxyContin, I wouldn't have done heroin."

"OxyContin entered the lives of the casual drug users as a Trojan horse ... who think of pain pills as just another interesting diversion for a Saturday night," continued the Times.

If not the virtuous dopeheads, who does the Times blame for OxyContin abuse? The manufacturer.

The Times even scoffed at the manufacturer's $50 million effort to reformulate OxyContin to make abuse more difficult, ridiculing the attempt as a "holy grail" pursued by "scientists and doctors as far back as Hippocrates." Downplayed or ignored were the manufacturer's outreach efforts to doctors, pharmacies and law enforcement authorities.

The misplaced blame is catching on.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, normally concerned with illegal drug dealers, is threatening to force a 95 percent cutback in OxyContin production unless it gets "more cooperation" from the manufacturer. A doctor who claims his small western Virginia community was "devastated" by OxyContin abuse is circulating a petition asking the Food and Drug Administration to remove OxyContin from the market. Personal injury lawyers already are suing OxyContin's Stamford, Conn.-based manufacturer.

The Times' sympathy for the devil has a price, though. The real victims in the controversy are pain patients who stand to lose legal access to a useful medication.

Just last week, the FDA pressured doctors about prescribing OxyContin. Considering the FDA's ready-fire-aim track record with silicone breast implants, diet drugs and other popular pharmaceutical products, it's only a matter of time before pain patients are deprived of OxyContin entirely.

And what about pain patients? The Times' story didn't mention one.

The OxyContin controversy is a liberal's dream come true. Sympathetic — almost heroic — dopeheads avenged by government agencies and trial lawyers swarming all over the greedy and malfeasant drug company.

It's a nightmare for the rest of us.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of the upcoming book Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).