Prescription drug abuse by teens on the rise

November 18, 2010 7:24:52 PM PST
Overall, drug use among teenagers is on the decline, but there is still a troubling increase in the use of prescription medicines to get high.

In the last decade, the number of students experimenting with drugs like Vicodin and Oxycontin has grown by nearly 350 percent. Many young people think they are safer than street drugs, but it is a choice that can have deadly consequences.

"He went to sleep and didn't wake up, and that's happening to kids all over the country," April Rovero says.

21-year-old Joey Rovero was just five months from graduation at Arizona State University, but just before Christmas last year, the former high school football player from San Ramon made a decision to see a doctor, a decision that would end his life.

She gave him prescriptions for what abusers call "the holy trinity:" Oxycontin for severe pain, Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication, and Soma, a muscle relaxant.

April, Joey's mom, says it was nine days from the time he got the medications to the time of his death. The drugs suppress the central nervous system and combined with alcohol, caused Joey to stop breathing in his sleep.

"It's a devastating thing to lose a child that had so much potential," she says.

April channeled her indescribable grief into action, starting a non-profit called the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse (NCAPDA).

"I will tell you, there's no student I talk to anywhere in the country who hasn't said this is a big problem on campus," she says.

"I'm addicted to Oxycontin," says Robert.

Robert just turned 20-years-old, but when he was a junior in high school, he started using his grandmother's pain medicine, ultimately taking the pills before class.

"As you get addicted, pretty soon you need it to feel OK and so then, it pretty much consumes you, you know, because you have to have it to function," he says.

"One of the most troubling statistics recently is about a quarter of high school students are trying these things," says Dr. Richard Gracer.

Gracer is an addiction specialist in San Ramon who is treating Robert. He says young people often do not understand the risks of these medicines.

"It's a patina of legitimacy, that this is a prescribed drug," he says. "But, if you take something with 80mg of Oxycodone, which is like 16 Vicodin pills, which is a common pain medicine, that's a lot to take at one time."

"So, there's this idea that if a doctor gives it to you, then it's OK. Then, it's not as addictive," says a patient named Monte, acknowledging that this is actually not the case at all.

At its peak, Monte's Oxycontin habit was costing up to $300 a day.

"In some desperate situations, you end up pawning off your belongings or even prostituting yourself to get your next fix," he says.

He eventually turned to a cheaper fix.

"I started shooting heroin. I started shooting black tar. The people I would use with were in high school and shooting it," he says.

That escalation from prescription meds to heroin is a growing concern, but the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency says it is a problem that often starts right at home.

"The source of supply is the medicine cabinet. Over 60 percent of the children nowadays get their pharmaceutical drugs from friends and families, from their own homes in most cases," DEA special agent Anthony Williams says.

Dublin High Assistant Principal Theresa Young is well aware of the problem and wants to get the word out to all parents.

"I think we need to start making them aware that this is up and coming, and it's happening, and it's certainly just a matter of time before it explodes on the high school scene," she says.

Student Body President Ben Young says prescription drug abuse is not common at Dublin High, but he knows it is a problem for some.

"I think the main reason is that most prescription drugs aren't locked up, especially in the house. They're just in the drug cabinet or the medicine cabinet, you know, easy access for kids to get to," he says.

And as Gracer explains, that easy access can lead to big trouble.

"They have these parties where, we've been told by several of our patients, where they throw all the pills they can find into a bowl in the middle of the table, and they're taking stuff out to take it," he says, likening the pills to candy. "It's like Skittles. They call it 'Skittles.'"

A year ago, April had no idea what a "skittle party" was. She is now a self-taught expert on prescription drug abuse and with talks like a recent one at ASU, she is bringing awareness to students, parents, educators and city leaders across the country. She knows sharing Joey's story has already saved lives.

So, what would Joey think about her efforts?

"He would hate the fact that he was the poster child and I really see him as that, for what not to do. But, I like to think that the earthly Joey is up there, looking down, and saying, 'Go mom,'" she says.

In less than a year, she has founded a nationwide non-profit and created a go-to website on prescription drug abuse. She is also sponsoring a video contest for young people to get the word out on the danger.

Here is more information from Dr. Gracer on the warning signs of drug abuse.


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