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A new choice in drug abuse

Teens turn to prescriptions

As school systems step up monitoring students for alcohol abuse, police and health officials say more teenagers are getting high on prescription drugs like the antianxiety pill Klonopin, which family members said an Arlington teen took before killing himself last week.

The drug, distributed in tablets known by young people as K-pins, is harder to detect than alcohol and perceived to be safer than street drugs like heroin and cocaine. Klonopin is widely available in families' medicine cabinets and can be purchased online through offshore pharmacies for between $2 and $5 a dose, doctors said.

''Faculty in schools across the region have been very effective at cracking down on alcohol. To counter that, the kids now have gone to using Klonopin as the drug of choice," said Arlington Police Chief Frederick Ryan, who plans to talk to area police chiefs about the drug at an upcoming meeting.

Teenagers are experimenting with Klonopin and Vicodin even before they try traditional gateway drugs such as alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana, said Dr. John Knight, director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at Children's Hospital.

The suicide of popular Arlington High School senior Cameron O'Connor and the subsequent arrest of two of his schoolmates for selling prescription drugs, including Klonopin, have renewed the call for random drug testing in some communities and more parent education about benzodiazepines, the class of drugs to which Klonopin and Xanax belong, in addition to opiates such as OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin.

While some principals and superintendents said they are unaware of Klonopin use among students, several Belmont students told parents last Thursday in an annual drug and alcohol forum that classmates are abusing prescription drugs, said Jonathan Landman, the principal of Belmont High.

''That's one theme that a number of us noticed which none of us noted in last year's panel," said Landman, adding that students did not name specific drugs. ''We need to learn what we can about it and figure out if there's something educational we can do."

In Arlington, O'Connor's death has prompted school officials to consider using drug-sniffing dogs to check lockers and testing students for drugs, a rare move among Massachusetts schools. Herb Levine, former Salem superintendent whose son, Joel, was addicted to OxyContin for three years, said yesterday that every school system in the state should consider randomly testing middle and high school students for drugs.

''It would give parents something to rely on," said Levine, who also spent 19 years as a high school principal. ''So many parents have no clue. If anybody should have known, I should have known. But still, for quite some time, my wife and I were fooled by our son when he was addicted."

Doctors noted, though, that standard drug tests used by schools often do not screen for prescription drugs.

New Bedford middle and high schools will start randomly testing students for drugs in March, said Carl Alves, coordinator of the city's drug-free student assistance program. The tests, for which parents voluntarily sign up their children, would screen for prescription drugs including benzodiazepines, he said.

''A lot of families in the suburbs have good medical care and will oftentimes have these drugs in their medicine cabinets," Alves said. ''With kids, availability and ease of use are two key factors when kids are using drugs. Klonopin doesn't smell, but you can still be high on it. And if there is a network of people selling these things, it's easy access."

Teenagers compared the high on Klonopin to being drunk, police said. When the drug is abused, it can be dangerous -- and when mixed with alcohol, it can be deadly, said Dr. Michael W. Shannon, chief of emergency medicine at Children's Hospital.

''People describe it as a very mellow high," Shannon said. ''If you mix it with something like alcohol, it makes you very inebriated. . . . It impairs judgment."

Shannon said he did not want to draw conclusions about the O'Connor case, but he said that particularly when combined with alcohol, ''it makes people do things they would otherwise not likely do, including take their lives."

O'Connor first tried Klonopin two months ago after a school semi-formal, said Joe Boike, O'Connor's uncle and a sergeant with the State Police. Boike and O'Connor's two brothers told the Globe that the 17-year-old was not depressed and said they believe Klonopin drove him to suicide. Police said they believe O'Connor took Klonopin before he died, but toxicology results are not back yet.

Shelley Rosenstock, spokeswoman for the Swiss-based Roche Pharmaceuticals, the maker of Klonopin, said she was not aware of teenagers abusing the drug and said the drug is safe when users consult their doctors.

A senior at Arlington High, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said prescription drug abuse seems to be on the rise at his school and others. He said most of the students he knows who take ''K-pins" buy them from students who have been prescribed the drug or who have access to someone else's prescription.

He believes the reason prescription drug abuse is popular is because there is little for teenagers to do in Arlington. Kids get sick of going to the movies or out to dinner, he said.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com. Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.