Painkiller '10 times more powerful' than current drugs on the market raising concerns

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 25 2012 2:32 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Therapists working to get users off their addiction to prescription drugs are worried about a new super painkiller called Zohydro, which is now awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

In the hands of licensed physicians serving patients with severe chronic pain, the extended-release pill would provide consistent 12-hour pain relief without having to pair it up with other medications. Though it could prove beneficial to patients with serious chronic pain, there is concern about the drug getting into the hands of abusers.

Salt Lake City's Journey Healing Centers is among several rehabilitation facilities raising a red flag. Staffers there try to help people who are hooked on a wide range of drugs.

Sean Hartley works with the Journey group now but remembers well his long-term addiction to painkillers. At age 17, OxyContin was his drug of choice.

"It started with weekends and then just progressed and progressed," Hartley said. "At first a little pill would last me four days, and then suddenly I'm going through multiple pills per day."

When the prescription drug got too expensive to buy on the street, Hartley switched to heroin. Through the teenage years into adulthood, his addiction tore him apart.

"I was kicked out of my house. I've been in numerous rehabs. I was always getting into trouble and had run-ins with police. I had to drop out of college," Hartley said. 

At first, the OxyContin made Hartley feel powerful, as he described it. "There was no end. I could do anything. When I woke up, I couldn't function without it. I felt awful, nauseous, had aches and pains. Basically I was ‘detoxing.' Then I would put the pills back into my system and I was ready to go again."

Hartley's long battle with drug abuse is why he and others at Journey worry about Zohydro. While beneficial to those patients, Journey clinical supervisor Michael Desjardins says the potent recipe could prove extremely risky in the hands of an abuser. Zohydro, he says, is going to be the first formulation of pure hydrocodone.

"It's going to be 10 times more powerful than the current medications on the market, like Vicodin," Desjardins said. "It's going to increase the availability of the opiates, and I think that hydrocodone is quickly going to become the number one prescribed medication on the street today."

Hartley agrees with his colleagues. He's been there and doesn't want to walk that street again. 

"I lived that life," he said. "Now it's time to move on, because I know what it did to me and I see it on a daily basis here at work, and what it's done to others."

According to Hartley, the pills were a fake mirror. "I didn't know who I was," he said. "I couldn't sit with myself. But now I can sit with myself, and by that I mean in my own skin."

Desjardins says if Zohydro is approved, it would be the first time pure hydrocodone is sold at the corner pharmacy.

E-mail: eyeates@desnews.com

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