COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - It is designed to help the terminally ill- the pain killer OxyContin. But according to officials, people are using it to get high.
Users are abusing the medication in a variety of ways- swallowing it, crushing it and snorting it and even melting it down and injecting it into their veins.
"OxyContin has become the latest plague of our time. It is the worst and most abused pain medicine prescribed," said Captain Nate Bader, a paramedic trainer for Columbus Fire and EMS.
"It was being referred to at one time as hillbilly heroine. OxyContin, especially when used with a needle, has the same effect as heroine. It's a terrible drug," explained Sergeant Rick Stinson, who heads up the Metro Narcotics Task Force.
And it can pack a powerful and sometimes deadly punch when the tablet, designed to be time-released, is taken all at once.
"For a patient that is relatively naive on opioides or not used to that dose, it could certainly impair their breathing and could cause death," said James Johnson, a pharmacist at J&J Pharmacy in Columbus.
"Eighty percent of our opium overdoes in Columbus are OxyContin overdoses," added Captain Bader of the paramedics.
Officials say dealers and addicts alike will do just about anything to get their hands on the potent pills.
"We have found forged prescriptions in our community that are brought to our pharmacy for filling. We also see patients doctor shopping- going from one physician to another, getting multiple prescriptions for OxyContin," Johnson revealed.
"We've seen them take tours through Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and they would go to a dozen, two dozen doctors in a weeks time and they'd be getting prescriptions from each doctor for the OxyContin," Sergeant Stinson said.
"It will most likely cost most patients $60-$100 for one bottle, one prescription. It can sell for $1 a milligram and that equals to about $8000 per prescription on the streets," Captain Bader told WTVM.
Columbus Fire officials believe forged prescriptions and doctor shopping played a part in the River Road Pharmacy arson.
The Columbus landmark burned down last September. Lillian Dion Burkett, her son Bobby Jo Burkett and Michael Lowery have been charged with the crime which they've pled not guilty to.
Authorities are being tight-lipped on the fire but tell WTVM the trio spearheaded a local OxyContin ring. While they're not facing drug charges in connection with the arson, fire investigators say they tried to push faulty prescriptions thru the River Road Pharmacy. The owner notified the cops, according to police reports.
"They were definitely involved in it. The illegal prescription drug use and some of the illegal activity that goes with it was definitely part of the motive for the arson," Columbus Fire and EMS Assistant Chief Jerry Fountain told News Leader 9 in an exclusive interview.
According to a Muscogee County indictment, Michael Lowery allegedly tried to use a forged prescription for OxyContin at the River Road Pharmacy in February of 2009, few months before it caught fire.
Bobby Jo Burkett pled guilty to the sale of OxyContin in January and was sentenced to probation.
"We almost lost four very dedicated, brave firefighters who put their lives on the line every day regardless of the situation but here they are responding to an incident that was to cover up an illegal act and these young people almost lost their lives. For us as a department, we take that extremely personal," Fountain added.
The arson suspects cases are pending in Muscogee County Superior Court.
Their attorneys say there is no physical evidence or witnesses that can link them to the crime and that authorities are relying on statements from confidential informants.
Narcotics agents say they're also seeing a lot of in-home thefts of OxyContin pills and other prescription medications.
They're asking folks if they have been legally and responsibly given the prescription, to be careful of how and where they store it.