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Prescription Pills: The New Drug of Choice for Teens

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Almost daily, officers in Whippany had scanned the increasingly complex board at HQ that mapped out the key players in the business, praying that their own children's names wouldn't appear. Considering drug use was so rampant in the school that kids called it Whippany Perc (after the popular painkiller Percocet), how many students could remain untouched? "Everyone at school knew you could get pills from Evan if you were good friends with him," recalls a 2007 graduate who had attended school with the dealer for years. "Suddenly, everyone was good friends with him."

Statistically, too, the officers had reason to worry. Although high school drug use is down across the country, in the past 10 years the rate of prescription drug abuse among teens has risen steadily. Nearly one in five — 4.5 million — admits to abusing medications not prescribed to him or her, reported the 2005 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study conducted by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

In December 2007, at a sentencing related to the bust, New Jersey State Superior Court Presiding Criminal Judge Thomas V. Manahan in Morris County described the Whippany teens' activities as "a large-scale drug distribution syndicate," adding that the abuse of prescription drugs "is not so much a plague on our society as a cancer that continues to grow." Rokoszak's family spearheaded a letter-writing campaign to plead for leniency — because the teen, as they put it, "is remorseful and has turned his life around" — but the 30-odd letters were of no avail: In February 2008, Judge Manahan sentenced Rokoszak to seven years in state prison (he must serve a minimum of five). Hearing the decision, his mother broke down, sobbing, "Oh, my baby, my baby."

Schools throughout the country have problems just like Whippany Park's. The difference is that there the authorities took action. But law-enforcement officials elsewhere are catching on, too. Seven youths, two still in high school, were recently arrested in Merrimack, NH, on charges of distributing the prescription painkillers Vicodin and Klonopin, as well as marijuana, to other high school students. In May, 75 students at San Diego State University were arrested in a massive bust where police confiscated vast quantities of illegal and prescription drugs, weapons, and $60,000 in cash. Among the coeds picked up: a criminal-justice major and a homeland-security grad student. Perhaps most disturbing, in February, 14 students at Castle View High School and Castle Rock Middle School in Colorado — one of them a 13-year-old seventh grader — were caught using or distributing Vicodin and oxycodone, acts which would be felonies if adults committed them.

None of these arrests surprises the experts. Pharmaceutical abuse has become so commonplace that it has filtered down to younger kids: Prescription drugs are now the number one illicit drug among 12- to 13-year-olds, according to the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. And their own kid's arrest or even conviction is not the worst thing parents have to fear from this epidemic.

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