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Xanax: The dark side of a legal drug Killing over legal drug unusual

Killing for the pills is unusual Ñ cheating and stealing are not

A handful of prescription pills cost Rick Ballantine his life this week in a cold-blooded shooting on a crowded downtown street.

But a killing over Xanax, a legal anti-anxiety drug?

If it came as a surprise, say those familiar with the drug, it shouldn't have. People already lie, cheat and steal for Xanax and a whole range of related prescription drugs.

'If someone is violent,' said Gary Schnabel, executive director of the Oregon Board of Pharmacy, 'it's not because they're under the influence of (Xanax). It's because they're not, and they're trying to get it.'

The typical addict gets hooked unintentionally through a legitimate prescription for, perhaps, dental surgery or sleeplessness, said Capt. Larry Kochever, acting head of the Portland Police Drugs and Vice Division.

But one addiction can lead quickly to another. A legitimate medical use can easily slide into addiction and turn law-abiding citizens into drug criminals.

Additionally, recreational drug users have discovered that Xanax, when mixed with methadone or heroin, creates a euphoria that is, as one user put it, like 'floating off into dreamland.'

While police say the market for prescription drugs still pales in comparison to the problems created by illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine and amphetamines, the problem is getting worse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, reports that nonmedical use of prescription drugs has doubled in the last decade.

That information is confirmed on the street in Portland. 'Every time I take the bus, people are trying to sell me that stuff,' one heroin user at a downtown needle exchange program told the Tribune when asked about the availability of Xanax.

Ballantine, as he lay dying on Southwest Broadway near Pioneer Square, said an acquaintance from a nearby drug rehabilitation clinic shot him when he refused to surrender his Xanax, according to witnesses.

Robert E. Heinz, 34, was arrested Tuesday night in Humboldt County, Calif., and charged in the killing.

Not hard to get

Xanax is the most modern version of the Valium tablet: a pill to take the edge off a hard day, to help you sleep or maybe to help you through anxiety Ñ a fully legal and well-regarded prescription medication.

It is one of dozens of legally sold and prescribed drugs that end up in the hands and the bloodstream of recreational users. The most commonly abused are strong narcotic painkillers such as Vicodin.

But mood-controlling substances Ñ known collectively as benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Ativan Ñ are also widely sought.

The drugs reach the black market through numerous routes. They're diverted by employees of a pharmacy, a pharmaceutical wholesaler or a manufacturer and, more recently, obtained over the Internet from other countries.

Abusers find many ways to obtain the drugs, through theft, deception and street buys. They call in fake prescriptions and lie about symptoms to gullible doctors and pharmacists. They intimidate nurses and hospital employees, steal from emergency rooms, steal prescription pads and forge prescriptions.

The problem isn't as bad in small towns where pharmacists are more likely to recognize a nurse's voice on the phone. Doctors everywhere, though, are getting more careful about leaving prescription pads on their desks.

Schnabel said: 'There are all kinds of scams, even over the telephone: 'This is doctor so-and-so.' Or the doctor's nurse: 'Give 100 to so-and-so.' If pharmacists are clued into a scam, they will call a physician to confirm it.'

If those plans fail, abusers can buy from drug dealers under the Burnside Bridge who sell oval 1-milligram hits of Xanax, known as little blue 'footballs,' for $5 apiece.

Good drug gone bad

A drug dealer working under the Burnside Bridge this week said he could access Xanax easily and sell a lot of it to people who want to stop using other drugs.

Did he have any Xanax available?

'Sure,' he said. 'How many you need? You want some heroin? I've got some.'

Stew Levy, a registered nurse with Oregon Health & Science University's Pain Management Clinic, said the abuse of Xanax and related drugs doesn't detract from their value.

'Lives have been changed 1,000 percent,' he said. 'Yet people have found a way to kill themselves or other people with it, so it's a (hyped news) story.'

Two decades ago, the Portland Police Bureau had two investigators assigned exclusively to prescription drugs. But budget cuts whittled the positions away, and today there are none, said Kochever of the bureau's drugs and vice division.

'Drug diversion is a very serious problem,' said Charles Cichon, president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, based in Annapolis, Md.

'There is a market for these legal drugs,' he said. 'The people who are real entrepreneurs are going down to Mexico and buying them cheap and bringing them back to sell them in bulk. There've been entire shipments of drugs diverted, a whole Federal Express truck worth of pills.

'There's been a string of armed robberies in the Boston area of pharmacies. This isn't new stuff, but the market is stronger than ever, and more young people are getting their hands on these drugs.'

Tribune reporters Mary Bellotti and Ben Jacklet contributed to this story.

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