Jaime Messina was no stranger to OxyContin. Growing up in her hometown of Watertown, Mass., the prescription painkiller was everywhere: to use it to get high, all you had to do was ask around at a party, or raid your parents’ medicine cabinet. She didn’t think much of it – it was just the way things were. Even though Oxy was all around her, Jaime managed to keep her distance from the drug. But that all changed once she graduated from high school and began attending Northeastern University.
Alarmed at the number of OxyContin-related deaths in her home state, Jaime dedicated an entire semester of her sophomore year studying the issue of Oxy abuse. During that time alone, five kids from Watertown died of Oxy overdoses.
“The threat that OxyContin poses to Massachusetts is not improving or even hitting a plateau,” Jaime wrote in a paper summarizing her research, adding that the skyrocketing rates of OxyContin misuse in the state resembled the beginning stages in places where Oxy abuse had already become rampant, such as rural areas of Maine.
Jaime also noted in her paper that OxyContin’s maker, Purdue Pharma, had used “overly aggressive and misleading” marketing techniques to promote its product, directly leading to rising death rates and increases in Oxy-related crime.
“The company handed out free samples and encouraged doctors to prescribe OxyContin over other painkillers because of a low abuse potential,” she wrote. “These aggressive marketing techniques contributed to doctors over-prescribing the drug to patients, which in turn made the drug easily accessible on the streets.”
To curb the rising numbers of young people who were becoming addicted and dying due to Oxy, Jaime proposed a four-day program to be used in Massachusetts schools that would educate students on the drug’s dangers.
“The why’s included in this paper should not be ignored, they should be taken seriously, and the how’s should be implemented to save lives,” she wrote. “We should attack this problem now before it is too late.”
Incredibly, Jaime’s paper was written in 2003 – a full four years before Purdue and three of its top executives agreed in 2007 to fork over $634.5 million for lying about OxyContin’s addictive qualities. Even more shocking is the fact that for all of her flag-waving, no one – not her professors, not her peers, not the numerous outlets she petitioned for publication – paid attention to Jaime’s call for action.
“Nobody wanted anything to do with it,” Jaime says today. “There was lots of denial. Parents didn’t want to believe it could happen to their kid.”
When Purdue pled guilty, Jaime says she felt vindicated.
“It confirmed everything I was saying,” she says. “But it was too late. Purdue is a drug dealer, and the direct result is that it caused these deaths.”
Eight years after writing the paper, Jaime says parents in her hometown are beginning to realize that prescription drug abuse is a problem. But just as they are catching up, a new beast has entered the picture, she says: heroin.
“Oxy is a dollar a milligram, and that’s way too expensive for many kids,” she says. “Heroin is pretty cheap, and it’s the same thing.”
Jaime says the trend of Oxy users turning to heroin is even more of a reason to educate kids about the dangers of opiates – starting as young as middle school, in her opinion. The reason for the preemptive start, she says: “kids don’t see themselves becoming heroin addicts, but there’s a really good chance that if you try an Oxy, you’ll end up in an alley shooting heroin. You have to be 100 percent blunt with these kids, because they’re going to die.”
Jaime – who is currently living back in Watertown and plans to pursue a graduate degree in sociology focusing on research – counts herself lucky that she was somehow able to escape the fate of so many of those around her. Nor does she harbor any illusions that there was any one crucial element, one magical key, that saved her from ending up like the kids she saw itching at those high school parties because they were going through opiate withdrawal.
“I could easily have gotten into it, I was just never in the right place at the right time to have an Oxy handed to me,” she says. “More than anything, I was just lucky.”
Click here to read Jaime’s original December 2003 paper on OxyContin abuse.
By Erin Marie Daly, OxyWatchdog founder