Oxycodone is a synthetic narcotic that serves as the active ingredient in such painkillers as Percocet, Percodan, Tylox, Roxicodone, Roxicet and, most infamously, OxyContin. First synthesized in the 1930s, it wouldn’t come to the attention of the public—and legal authorities—until almost two decades later.
Since the early 1800s, it had been widely known that the potency of opium stems from the morphine base contained within it. Various opium- and morphine-derived tinctures were sold over-the-counter in the 19th century. After the Bayer pharmaceutical company released an extremely potent morphine-derived cough suppressant called heroin in 1898, the addictive nature of such compounds led to an estimated 300,000 addicts in the U.S. alone.
Using the opiate alkaloid thebaine, oxycodone was first synthesized by two German scientists in 1916, as a supposedly non-addictive, synthetic substitute for narcotics like heroin, which had been banned two years earlier. Though it was first introduced to American consumers in 1939, it did not become a household name until the release of Percodan—a oxycodone pill cut with aspirin--in 1950.
Increase in Regulation
In 1963, the attorney general of California publicly denounced Percodan abuse as the source of one-third of all drug addictions with the state. The National Bureau of Narcotics, later the Drug Enforcement Administration, went a step further and ordered nationwide tightening of all restrictions on the drug. In 1970, oxycodone, along with all other opiates, was made a Schedule II drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
In 1974, the Food and Drug Administration approved another oxycodone product, Percocet, for mass consumption. It was, however, prescribed and kept in small quantities by druggists fearful of being robbed. Over the next decade, however, researchers would increasingly look toward oxycodone for the treatment of chronic pain. In 1989, the Texas Medical Board adopted language to support the wider use of painkillers by doctors. Fourteen other states followed suit shortly thereafter.
In 1996, Perdue Pharma released OxyContin--the first uncut form of oxycodone with a time-release base intended to prevent abuse. Within in two years, it came to account for 80 percent of all Perdue profits, while at the same time, police in rural jurisdictions throughout the U.S. began to report a large spike in arrests and overdoses related to the drug, which earned it the nickname “Hillbilly Heroin.”
Unlike Percocet and Tylox, OxyContin was pure oxycodone, giving it the relatively high street value of $1 per milligram. With illicit use of the drug at an all-time high, both Perdue and the FDA issued warnings against the recreational use of the drug in 2001. Despite this, lawsuits against Perdue over misleading information concerning addiction to OxyContin have been brought as recently as 2007, and today it is widely cited as one of America’s most abused prescription drugs.