The generic form of the powerful painkiller OxyContin already is for sale on the black market in Appalachia, even though it's not yet available in all pharmacies.
Dan Smoot, chief detective for an anti-drug task force in eastern Kentucky, said undercover narcotics investigators began purchasing the generic drug from street-level dealers earlier this week. Investigators suspect a shipment of the drug was stolen from a storage building in eastern Kentucky.
"When we first got the pills, we didn't know what they were," Smoot said. "They look nothing like the OxyContin we were familiar with."
OxyContin is a long-lasting version of oxycodone, a narcotic considered important therapy for many patients suffering chronic, moderate to severe pain from illnesses such as cancer. The tablet, when swallowed whole, provides 12 hours of pain relief.
But the drug can produce a quick and potentially lethal high if it is chewed, snorted or injected. It has been linked to more than 100 deaths and bears the government's strongest warning label.
The Food and Drug Administration has given approval for Teva Pharmaceuticals of North Wales, Pa., and Endo Pharmaceuticals of Chadds Ford, Pa., to sell generic versions of the drug.
Law enforcement officials were dreading the release of the generic version, saying it could increase availability and reduce prices of the drug on the black market.
Karen Engle, executive director of Operation UNITE, said the anti-drug task force is investigating the origin of the generic drug now available illegally in Kentucky.
"We actually had to call the poison control center to have them identify the substance for us," she said.
The generic drugs circulating in the mountain region may have been a stolen shipment intended for pharmacies in the region, Smoot said.
Kentucky State Police Detective Eddie Crum said a generic drug shipment was taken during an April 29 break-in at a storage facility in Pikeville. He said he was surprised that the generic drugs, which usually are transported in armored cars, were being stored so carelessly.
"We knew when the FDA approved generic OxyContin that it would end up in the region," Engle said. "But we didn't think it would be here before the pharmacies got it."
By Roger Alford
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