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Health & Parenting

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Prescription Pills: The New Drug of Choice for Teens

Pretty Pills, and Deadly

Adults think of prescription drugs purely as medicine, but kids have come up with ways to create effects similar to what they'd experience from street dope — from crushing pills to circumvent timed-release controls to doubling or tripling dosages or simply downing handfuls. What's more, if parents are in the dark regarding these drugs' potential for abuse, they're also often blind to how deadly they can be.

"As a mother, I was worried about cocaine, crystal meth, and drinking and driving — but I had no idea prescription drugs were an issue," says Francine Haight, an R.N. who lives near Laguna Beach, CA. In the winter of 2001, her son Ryan, an A student and star tennis player, was looking forward to starting college later that year. So she suspected nothing that February evening when he arrived home from his job in the plant nursery of a big-box store. He spent some time in their Jacuzzi, then went upstairs to bed. The next afternoon, when Ryan still hadn't gotten up, his mother went into his bedroom to check on him. He was dead, from an accidental overdose of Vicodin, Valium, and a trace of morphine. He'd been prescribed these drugs over the Internet by a doctor he'd never met; the prescriptions had been filled online by a pharmacist he'd never seen. "He didn't understand the dangers," Haight says. "He knew everyone had pills like these, so he figured they couldn't be dangerous. The doctor wouldn't prescribe them for you, and the pharmacist wouldn't give them to you, if they could kill you, right?"

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.

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