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Prescription Pills: The New Drug of Choice for Teens

Pretty Pills, and Deadly continued...

Accidental-poisoning deaths among youths ages 15 to 24 increased 113 percent between 1999 and 2004, mostly due to prescription- and illegal-drug abuse, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Upping overdose risks: Four out of 10 teens believe that prescription meds are much safer to use than illegal drugs — even when they are not prescribed by a doctor. What's more, nearly three out of 10 teens think these drugs are not addictive, according to the Partnership study. Kids trust prescription drugs because they're mass-produced, FDA-approved, familiar medicines. Even the nicknames teens give them — "jif," "Z-bar," "cotton" — suggest childhood treats and comfort food.

"I've heard many kids say, 'I'm not doing hard drugs. I wouldn't use heroin,'" says Troy Faddis, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the clinical director of the Aspen Achievement Academy, a wilderness recovery program in Loa, UT. "But opiates like OxyContin are the pharmaceutical equivalent of heroin."

"Your brain doesn't know if the high came from heroin or an opiate pill," agrees Roger Weiss, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard and the clinical director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA. "Some teens who experiment with these drugs never use them again. Some try them and don't start using heroin but do get addicted to the prescription opiate. And some get physically dependent and progress to heroin. You don't know how you'll react." Like adults, kids can build up a tolerance to these drugs, and crave them in ever-greater quantities. And teens' common practice of mixing prescription pills together, or with alcohol, street drugs, or OTC products like cough syrup, increases the risk exponentially. "Combining creates a greater chance of accident or overdose," explains Dr. Weiss. "Kids are more likely to fall out of a window or to walk in front of a car because they're more intoxicated."

Easy Access

Teens often don't even have to leave home to get their first taste of prescription drug highs, points out Joshua Lyon, 33, author of the forthcoming book Pill Head, a chronicle of several teens' and young adults' struggle with prescription-painkiller addiction, as well as his own. "It's not like most parents are keeping unused marijuana or cocaine in the medicine cabinet," he says, but they often have old pills they don't keep track of. More than three in five teens say prescription pain relievers are easy to get from their parents' medicine chests; half say they're a snap to obtain through other people's prescriptions; and more than half say pain relievers are available everywhere, according to the Partnership study.

Case in point: Sara Swanson, who grew up in suburban St. Paul, MN, the daughter of two recovering alcoholics. "My parents always warned me about alcohol abuse," explains Swanson, "but my mom had back problems and never dreamed I'd take her muscle relaxants." Swanson moved on from her mother's pills to other drugs, trading cigarettes to her friends for their Adderall. "I loved the pills, and they were so easy to get," she says. "I'd look at the recommended dose and then double it."

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