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Study: One out of five teens admits to prescription drug abuse

The Reporter, July 2, 2006
By Colleen Kottke

Vigilant parents who guard the liquor cabinet against enterprising teens would be well advised to keep an eye on the family medicine chest as well.

An alarming national study conducted this year by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America year reveals that one out of five teens has admitted to abusing prescription drugs.

Coined Generation Rx as a result of the study, teens today abuse more prescription medications than illegal street drugs.

It's a growing epidemic among teens and most parents don't even know it.

Instead of searching for a local hook-up, teens are finding plenty of drugs for a quick high right in the comfort of their own homes. The culture of "pharming" the abuse of prescription medications to intentionally get high is slowly making its way to smaller communities all across America.

Accounts of teens at parties or in school hallways swapping pills swiped from the family medicine chest are becoming more common, much to the dismay of local law enforcement and AODA (Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse) counselors.

"If you would have told me some time ago about kids going to a 'pharm party,' I would have thought you were going out to someone's farm for a good time," said Waupun School Liaison Officer Brian O'Donovan, who picked up on the trend nearly 1 years ago at a national conference tracking juvenile issues. "It's an alarming trend. Prescription drugs seem all the rage because they're more readily available."

It's so easy

In her practice at the Department of Community Programs for Fond du Lac County, AODA counselor Kathy Heaney is seeing more and more young clients abusing prescription medications.

"We're seeing a lot of abuse of stimulants such as Ritalin or pain medications like OxyContin or Percocet," said Heaney, noting that her youngest client being treated for substance abuse is age 12.

With a record number of prescriptions being written for Adderall and Ritalin for ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) disorders, many teens may pretend to lose their medications or pocket their younger sibling's to use or to sell.

By shopping the medicine chest, teens may also find leftover pain medications prescribed for an adult living in the household.

"If you have medications in the home, you should keep them in a safe place so there is no access- whether it's your child, your child's friend or other people in the home," Heaney said.

"You have to stay one step ahead of them. It's a controlled substance that can be very dangerous if misused."

Heaney said that many of her clients admit to using the Internet as a source to obtain medications.

According to a new White Paper released by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, for the third year, the number of Web sites selling controlled prescription drugs has increased.

The update reveals that one out of 10 of these sites selling drugs do not require a prescription.

"We've had the instance where a couple of adults in Waupun have died from taking too many prescription medications, many of which were purchased online," O'Donovan said.

Dispelling misperceptions

Many teens mistakenly believe that using prescription drugs isn't as dangerous as using street drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, Ecstasy or crack, said AODA counselor Joyce Gau.

"One client thought those drugs were safer since they had the FDA's seal of approval and were prescribed by a physician," said Gau, who works at the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Resource Center of Fond du Lac.

O'Donovan said many teens aren't aware of the addictive nature of prescription drugs such as OxyCodone (also known as the poor man's heroin) and freely share them with one another.

"We had one female student that asked her friend for a couple of tablets of OxyContin as a birthday present," O'Donovan said.

Prescription for trouble

While prescription medications are beneficial if taken in prescribed doses under a doctor's care, nearly 75 percent of those abusing prescription drugs compound the risk by adding alcohol to the equation.

"Mixing medications with alcohol or other medications (especially if the teen has no idea of what they're consuming) can be a deadly combination," Heaney said. "They could be laying there unconscious with no pill bottle or evidence of what they've taken, leaving parents or health-care professionals helpless to know where to begin in helping them."

Overdoses of prescription and over-the-counter medications accounted for about one-fourth of the 1.3 million drug-related emergency room visits in 2004, according to the federal Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Partnership.

Recreational and experimental use of prescription medications may result in serious health-related consequences, and those caught possessing them without a prescription could face drug charges equivalent to possession of illegal narcotics, O'Donovan said.

"We've had cases where students have been caught selling or sharing medications in school," O'Donovan said. "Kids need to realize that it's a crime."