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Oxy-incontinent in Philadelphia

BY JEFF DEENEY
03.10.2006 | SOCIETY

The Young Bucks, as the white boys of detox called themselves, had fade haircuts and wore tracksuits and boxy, brightly white basketball shoes that were loosely laced, their tongues lolling limply over to one side. One of the boys chewed on the plastic filter tip of an unlit Black and Mild cigarillo, another sucked on a toothpick. They had intricately trimmed facial hair that hugged the contours of their jawbones in an almost imperceptibly thin line; adolescent beards painstakingly winnowed down to mere chinstraps by friends who played barbershop with razors and clippers in their parent's kitchens. They tucked the next menthol cigarette they intended to smoke behind one ear. They had tattoos of names and dates in flowing script on their forearms signifying loves, deaths and incarceration stays in juvenile detention halls. They wore earrings of clear glass cut to look like diamonds. They looked mean and criminally experienced beyond their years. When playing spades they theatrically threw their cards in a pile by raising them high and slapping them down on the table with a flick of the wrist. They were all addicted to OxyContin, most of them also sold it and none of them was interested in stopping for more than the four days they would be sitting in detox.

The Young Bucks generally hailed from the Greater Northeast section of Philadelphia: Tacony, Mayfair, Frankford and Pennypack. OxyContin was the tricycle of narcotics for these hard-nosed working class kids; they got their balance in the world of hard drugs by forging prescriptions or some other act of thievery, selling and snorting the pills with their friends. The streets of the Greater Northeast were tightly packed with nondescript two-story red brick row houses and store fronts that hadn't been renovated or seen much upkeep in thirty years. It was a landscape dotted with refineries and factories that harkened back to industrial America, except that most of the factories were empty now and the industry gone. Against this bleak backdrop the Young Bucks became big fish in their small ponds of users and suppliers; small, at least, compared to the action down in the Zone, Philadelphia's still untamed tract of North Philadelphia where open-air drug markets operated around the clock. The Young Bucks who had already moved on to heroin had instant clout because they hung out near the dope spots, "down the way" as they referred to the Zone only a couple miles to the south where the Old Head dope addicts played all day.

In the detox smoking pit at night the talk amongst the Young Bucks was all about tolerance. They loved to go around the teeming crowd, asking how much OxyContin each was using on a daily basis before they arrived here, a game of one-upsmanship and manhood proving that led to Paul Bunyan-esque tall tales. The numbers would start off being believable, one 80-milligram pill per day, maybe two. But by the time they had made the rounds the amount of drugs these kids were claiming to consume on a daily basis became too fantastic to be real.

"Man, two 80s a day, man, y'all shouldn't even be in here man, that ain't no problem. You can't maintain that? Shit, I have two 80s for breakfast first thing in the morning and it just leaves me wantin' another. I been doing eight 80s a day. Yeah, that's right motherfucker I said 8. Shit, I'm here hopin' to get back down to two 80s a day. That ain't even a habit, man."

Now, certainly it's possible for a person's tolerance to opiates to reach stratospheric proportions where elephantine doses of the drug that would kill a normal person only affect the addict like a normal dose of painkillers. But there were economic factors to the OxyContin market that made an eight 80-milligram pill a day habit extremely improbable. OxyContin, while having flooded the streets of Philadelphia in such outstanding quantities for a government controlled substance that its tidal wave-like spread defied reasonable explanation, was not available in the essentially unlimited supply that heroin was. Heroin in Philadelphia was plentiful and potent and $10 would get you a bag that was at least equivalent in strength to one 80-milligram OxyContin pill. But due to limited supply, that one 80-milligram OxyContin pill would cost the user $40. Fifty cents a milligram was the going rate on the streets. The pills were sized in increments, from 10 mg to 20, to 40, to 80. 80 milligrams was the largest dose available in a single pill, and for purposes of pricing and tolerance comparing, the 80 milligram pill was the gold standard.

Therefore, this 19-year-old kid was claiming that he was able to support over time a $320-a-day OxyContin habit, which was an extremely unlikely piece of adolescent boasting. Drug habits don't take holidays and they don't take weekends off, so at this rate a single year worth of using would run $116,800 and there aren't too many working class teenagers with access to that kind of capital. Even for someone dealing the pills, there would be no way to obtain the kind of supply that would support both that kind of daily use and the amount of pills needed to sell to cover it, unless that person was a crooked doctor or a hooked pharmacist who had some direct access to a pipeline of pills. Wholesale connections like these for mass quantities of pills certainly existed, but they were few and far between and these kids in detox weren't likely that high enough up on the illicit distribution chain to access them.

When the young kids asked me what kind of habit I had I truthfully told them that I had recently escalated to four 80s a day. They seemed to find that acceptable and moved on to find someone else to badger and accuse of being a pussy. At some point in these conversations, though, an Old Head heroin junky was bound to throw his two cents in, killing the fun and silencing the children with a booming voice that was full of the seasoned addict's cold and calculating reason.

"Yo, man, fuck them Oxy's, man. You motherfuckers actually pay forty bucks for one of them, man, I can get five for four from my boy down on 8th and Somerset, that's forty bucks for five bags of good dope. What's that run you? For five of them pills, man, you're paying fuckin' two hundred bucks and I get the same thing for forty. It's stupid is what it is, that Oxy bullshit. I don't care how many of them damn things you can sniff in a day, it's a waste of money, man. Yo, for real, someday you knuckleheads are gonna figure that out and you come see me when you do, I'll hook you up with some good dope spots and show you how to work a needle, you'll thank me for it."

He had a point. On a dollar for dollar basis, heroin provided the bang for the buck. So why OxyContin? How could such an expensive pharmaceutical gain so much traction in a market saturated with cheap and potent heroin? It made sense that in places like West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio OxyContin would become the most predominantly abused opiate. The heroin distribution channels, while much more far-reaching in America than they used to be, with the drug turning up in limited quantities even in small cities like Harrisburg and Lancaster and even as far away as Allentown and Scranton, hadn't reached into the rural heartland where, like everywhere else in the world, there was a small percentage of the population that desired to get high on dope. So OxyContin, like an invasive foreign plant species, quickly took over this territory when it hit the black market because there was nothing else there to usurp or slow its immediate rise to dominance.

In Philadelphia, though, the OxyContin epidemic has had no less an effect, despite a cheaper alternative widely available on the streets. Not surprisingly, in detox most of the people hooked on OxyContin and other prescription painkillers were either young or new to opiate addiction, in either case the users hadn't been fully sucked into the vortex of North Philadelphia and its violent and lurid junky culture. Most liked not having to leave the comforts of their working class neighborhoods for worse sections of the city in order to get drugs. Since OxyContin, largely, was an off street drug (not that there weren't thriving open air Oxy markets -- there were, but they were as dangerous as any other open-air drug market and most users considered them a last resort), it made a perfect market for new dealers and users just cutting their teeth. Oxys were dealt behind closed doors, between acquaintances, in relative safety. Users could buy without worrying about getting caught in a Narc Squad street sweep and the dealers didn't have to constantly worry about getting shot. Beyond that, with each pill the users knew exactly what they were getting; there was no way to counterfeit the pills and the pills' contents were government regulated for quality, unlike a street bag of dope that could either be so weak as to be a waste of money or deadly because it contains rat poison or some other pollutant.

However, just because OxyContin was initially a safer alternative didn't mean users wouldn't at some point wind up strung out on heroin. Addictive drugs change the way people behave and think. As an addict gets hooked starts constantly calculating and projecting how much he'll have to spend getting high and always try to identify new revenue streams that will allow them to get more. He'll eventually become a hustler in some way or another, be it a burglar, dope dealer or white-collar salesmen turned embezzler. The dollar and how much dope it can purchase becomes king overall and price and potency factor into this. There was some naivete about all this left in the Young Bucks that would eventually be ground out of them. As the Young Bucks aged and became more experienced, they would confront the cold hard fact that OxyContin was expensive and heroin was cheap and at some point, if they didn't manage to get clean, most of them would make the switch.

And then it was, as they say, off to the races. Into the Zone and on the needle.

About the Author
Jeff Deeney is a Philadelphia-based writer who is in the process of submitting a book to publishing houses about the black market trade in OxyContin.
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