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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

OxyContin a growing scourge

Addictive painkiller behind recent rash of criminal cases

This map by graphic artist Kimberly Lusk shows pharmacy robberies around Spokane for 2008.
 (The Spokesman-Review)
Meghann M. Cuniff Staff writer

A Coeur d’Alene attorney reportedly recruited a client to help him feed his prescription pill addiction, paying for the man to travel to California monthly to fetch hundreds of OxyContin pills. It went on for several months until the client turned to the police, launching an investigation that ended with the lawyer’s arrest last month.

Shawn C. Nunley, a former Kootenai County deputy prosecutor, faces a federal charge of conspiracy to distribute drugs, though he told police he used the pills himself and never sold them.

While Nunley’s arrangement with his client was unusual, the story he told investigators of his addiction to the powerful painkiller, outlined in the police report, has been echoed across the Inland Northwest and throughout the nation. Nunley’s account helps illustrate the extent of a problem that runs the socioeconomic spectrum, from elaborate schemes hatched by urban professionals to knife-point pharmacy robberies by desperate addicts.

A former Eastern Washington University student charged with a string of summer pharmacy robberies, for example, told police of his addiction as they transported him to Spokane County Jail.

A Deer Park doctor is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court Friday after pleading guilty to two felonies related to illegal distribution of the drug, which a federal indictment said contributed to two deaths. And it’s gained fame through high-profile cases like that of conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh, who went to a rehabilitation clinic for it, and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s future son-in-law’s mother, who faces federal charges for allegedly distributing it. Actor Heath Ledger died one year ago Thursday after taking a mix of prescription drugs that included OxyContin.

“We’re seeing extreme abuse in high schools all the way up to obviously lawyers and other people in town,” said Coeur d’Alene police Detective Eric Paull. “We’re literally making a generation of heroin junkies is what it’s turning into.”

OxyContin, a trade name for the drug oxycodone, is an opium-based narcotic that produces a heroin-like high when the time-release capsules are crushed, then injected, snorted or smoked.

Unlike methamphetamine, which has spurred state-enacted legislation to make its key ingredient – pseudoephedrine – difficult to get, oxycodone can’t be manufactured in a home lab. Addicts forge prescriptions, lie about stolen prescriptions, burglarize homes, hospitals and senior centers, and rob pharmacies to get their fix.

Police blame the surge of pharmacy robberies in the Inland Northwest last summer on a 23-year-old man, but the October arrest of Edward A. Saner hasn’t tapered the robberies. Seven more have been reported in Spokane and Kootenai counties since then, most recently Jan. 14 at the Walgreens on Argonne Road in Millwood, where a man held a knife to a customer’s chest and fled with the drug.

Street price exploded

The Federal Drug Administration approved oxycodone in 1995, and drug maker Purdue Pharma released OxyContin as a legal prescription in 1996. The company settled a federal lawsuit in 2007 for $634.5 million after admitting executives had lied about the drug’s addictiveness.

By then, OxyContin use had soared 500 percent in Washington between 1997 and 2005, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.

The surge in popularity coincides with a surge in street price. A 40 mg OxyContin pill costs about $5.40 at Bi-Mart. But police and users say a 40 mg pill on the black market can fetch $30 to $50. An 80 mg pill – the equivalent of about 16 Percocet pain pills – can go for twice that.

Heroin’s lower cost and similar high means OxyContin users sometimes turn to it.

Nunley graduated near the top of his class at the University of Idaho and spent time at a large Boise law firm before moving to North Idaho. According to the police report, he told Paull after his arrest that he averaged nine 80 mg pills of OxyContin a day and spent up to $100,000 on the drug each year. He also admitted to sometimes using heroin.

When Nunley, 37, learned someone he was representing for free on a drunken driving charge had a prescription for the drug, he asked him for help getting pills, according to federal court documents. When the client refused, investigators say Nunley sent a man with a gun to threaten him.

That client told police he traveled to California a couple times a month to fetch bottles of pills for Nunley between November 2007 and December, when he became a confidential informant for police; Nunley was arrested in a police sting Dec. 16.

“It usually starts with a legal prescription and goes on from there,” said Richard Miles, director of services at Daybreak, a drug rehabilitation center for teens in Spokane. “They don’t wake up one day and decide to go buy some OxyContin off the street.”

The Deer Park physician was accused in a June 2007 federal indictment of prescribing pain pills, including oxycodone, to known drug abusers. Keith L. Hindman, 67, pleaded guilty in August to charges of health care fraud and prescribing controlled substances for reasons other than legitimate medical purposes. He could be sent to prison when he returns to court this week.

A woman accused of robbing the Deer Park Bi-Mart of OxyContin said she started using the drug in 2001 after Hindman prescribed it to her for migraine headaches.

Sunshine L. VanCleave, 34, said she had an OxyContin prescription for several years, and when it ended, she had no problem finding pills. Sheriff’s deputies arrested VanCleave and James C. Hutson, 24, on Nov. 2 for a robbery the previous day. Hutson posted $7,500 bail and has an April trial date.

VanCleave swallowed a handful of OxyContin and lost consciousness after her arrest and was treated at a local hospital, where she’s accused of strangling a nurse with a phone cord, according to police. She’s being held at the Spokane County Jail on $55,000 bail.

A mother of three, VanCleave declined to comment on her charges but said OxyContin and other prescription drugs ruled her life for some time.

“The devil got his grips in me really bad, and my kids are suffering for it,” she said.

Tracking robberies

Pharmacies fearful of robberies invest in video cameras and tighter security. Medicine Man Pharmacy saw one robbery at its Hayden store and an attempted robbery at its Coeur d’Alene store last year; now none of the five stores in North Idaho and Liberty Lake carries the drug.

OxyContin prescriptions are usually filled within 24 hours, said Barry Feely, who owns three of the pharmacies, which feature signs saying no OxyContin is stocked on the premises. While abuse of other prescription drugs like hydrocodone is common, Feely said his pharmacies haven’t had a problem with anything else.

“It’s just OxyContin – we want to keep that out of our stores,” he said.

Purdue Pharma created a program in 2003 to help police and pharmacies track prescription drug robberies.

“A lot of these guys become serial robbers just due to the fact that they’re addicted,” said Richard Conklin, a Stamford, Conn., police corporal who works with the program, called RxPatrol.

VanCleave said the jail is filled with inmates who tell stories of their OxyContin addictions and new inmates who suffer withdrawals.

“It’s becoming the drug of choice,” VanCleave said.

Authorities aren’t ready to say it has replaced methamphetamine. But it’s clearly filling a niche in the drug market that’s different from strictly illegal drugs like cocaine and heroin, said Paull, the Coeur d’Alene detective and a member of the North Idaho Violent Crimes Task Force.

Corporate manufacturing keeps the drug consistent from batch to batch, which some say contributes to its popularity.

“With cocaine or something like that, the strength of each time they buy could be different,” said Spokane police Detective Brian Hamond. “With the pills, a heavy user kind of sticks to a set amount that he likes to get herself or himself high.”

That consistency proved pivotal for Spokane police tracking the serial Rite Aid robber last summer.

By calculating the number of pills taken during each robbery and the time between each incident, Hamond predicted the robber would strike again the weekend of Oct. 3. Officers staked out five Rite Aids for two days. They nabbed Saner late on the second day as he exited the South Hill Rite Aid with a bottle of stolen OxyContin after telling a clerk he had a gun, according to court documents. His trial on six felony robbery counts is scheduled to begin March 30.

Miles, of Daybreak, said he’s seen an increase in teens abusing all types of prescription drugs over the years, and it usually starts with a peek inside a parent’s medicine cabinet.

“A lot of kids accidentally get an enormous access to them,” he said, noting that nearly 20 percent of the center’s 287 patients in 2008 listed OxyContin or hydrocodone as one of their top three favorite drugs. Schools in Kootenai County hold awareness events each term to encourage parents to turn in their unused prescription medications. Doctors are well-trained at detecting patient abuse and prescription forgeries, Paull said.

Changing the formula

One key to addressing OxyContin abuse on a national scale could lie in addressing the drug’s addictive qualities, experts say. Snorting or injecting a crushed pill produces an intense high because it breaks the drug’s 12-hour release cycle.

Finding a way to manufacture the pill that preserves the drug’s time release in all forms could be a big step, Paull said.

Purdue Pharma has been working to make the drug tamper resistant and has a new formula for OxyContin under review with the Federal Drug Administration, said company spokesman James Heins.

The company has a 10-point program for combating OxyContin abuse that includes the funding of RxPatrol and other drug awareness programs.

The key to changing the drug, Heins said, is finding a balance between maintaining the medication and helping to deter people who shouldn’t be taking it anyway.

“It’s a very serious public health problem, and it needs to be balanced with the equally serious problem of the treatment of pain,” Heins said.

But no matter what the company does, “There’s always going to be a very motivated individual who’s going to find a way to compromise a medication for nonmedical use.”

Meghann M. Cuniff can be reached at (509) 459-5534 or at