Watchdog Reports: Interview with Current TV’s Mariana van Zeller

In 2009’s The OxyContin Express, Current TV correspondent Mariana van Zeller traveled to South Florida, the “Colombia of prescription drugs,” to report on the state’s OxyContin epidemic. In Gateway to Heroin, premiering June 20, van Zeller heads to Massachusetts to follow up on how Florida’s pill mills have fueled a new phenomenon: opiate addicts turning to heroin for a cheaper, more available high. Watchdog asked van Zeller to weigh in on how prescription drug abuse has created a generation of heroin addicts.

Watchdog: How has the face of Oxy addiction changed since the making of The OxyContin Express?

Van Zeller: It’s only getting worse. Prescription drug addiction is killing more people than cocaine, ecstasy and heroin combined. The biggest problem now is that for this younger generation of kids who are already addicted to Oxy, they are turning to heroin, which is more potent and incredibly dangerous. We interviewed one kid in Massachusetts who was an all-star athlete and was injured in the last football game of his senior year. He left the hospital with a prescription for Oxy for his back injury, and soon he was a full-blown heroin addict. He destroyed his life and everyone around him.

The other issue is that we’re used to hearing about heroin as a “back-alley” drug in poor neighborhoods, and it’s not like that anymore. Heroin is in suburban areas with good middle-class families. These are the daughters and sons of lawyers and doctors.

W: Is OxyContin still the hot item in terms of pill deals?

VZ: In The OxyContin Express, it was all about the Oxys. People were all about getting their hands on the Oxy 80s. But [OxyContin’s maker] Purdue Pharma, because of the enormous pressure by lawmakers and others, came out with a tamper-proof version of Oxy. So when we went to Massachusetts, the big pill now is Percocet 30s. But the Oxys are still around, and in Massachusetts for sure more people are trying Oxy for the first time, which puts them on a fast track to becoming a heroin addict.

One interesting thing we found was that a lot of studies about prescription drug abuse say that kids are getting these drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinets. But we didn’t find that to be the case in Massachusetts. Pills have become street drugs. We visited one drug den where the dealers went down to Florida and brought back the pills, which are their drug of choice for selling. Most of their profit comes from pills, even though heroin and cocaine are right there on the table next to them. It’s so scary.

W: Do you think that because of the changes Purdue made with the tamper-proof Oxys, more people will be driven to heroin?

VZ: There’s certainly an enormous risk that by making Oxys harder to find, for this huge group of people who are already addicted to opiates, it will be a fast switch to heroin for them.

W: Will overdose deaths also increase as a result?

VZ: Absolutely. There has already been a huge increase in overdose deaths from heroin and opiates in Massachusetts. In fact, the state just started a pilot program distributing Narcan [an opioid antagonist that counteracts the effects of opioids in the victim’s body] among family members. It’s already saved over a thousand lives, which shows how bad the problem is there.

W: Any thoughts on how Purdue has acted throughout the Oxy addiction phenomenon?

VZ: As much as Purdue says it isn’t possible to know who or how many people are abusing Oxy, I don’t believe that. If you ask a factory that makes tires how much of their product is distributed and to whom, they know that information. I’m sure Purdue has these numbers. But it’s making a killing off of the profits from Oxy, so there’s no incentive to stop manufacturing it.

Learn more about van Zeller’s work on the opiate epidemic here and here, and be sure to watch “Gateway to Heroin” on Monday, June 20 at 9/8c on Current TV.

About Erin Marie Daly

I’m a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. My book on prescription drug and heroin addiction was published in August 2014 by Counterpoint Press.
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