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Prescription Pills: The New Drug of Choice for Teens

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Swanson, 18, has just graduated from Sobriety High School, a charter school in Edina, MN, attended by 60 students recovering from addiction through 12-step programs. But it took a failed suicide attempt — waking up to find friends asking her why she'd purposely tried to overdose — to make her realize she needed help.

In addition to "borrowing" from relatives and bartering with friends, hooked kids often get their fix by buying from dealers — both teens like Rokoszak and career criminals with a history of distribution. Those dealers, as well as more enterprising kids, may fill their supplies by using falsified prescriptions on- or off-line, by visiting multiple doctors and going to pharmacies with legal prescriptions, or by out-and-out theft from drugstores or homes.

Thanks to Francine Haight, however, Internet drug dealers should soon have a tougher time selling to kids. "For three years after Ryan died, I was in shock and could hardly function," she says. Despite her grief, she made the effort to speak out at colleges around the country and at a drug-awareness symposium for the DEA, and she founded the drug-awareness organization Ryan's Cause: Reaching Youths Abusing Narcotics (ryanscause.org). In April, the Senate passed the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act of 2008, which forbids U.S. online pharmacies to supply controlled substances to anyone without a valid prescription from a doctor he's met with at least once. "Unfortunately, Ryan's story is just one of many. We know of at least 18 people who have died due to overdoses from drugs purchased on the Internet through rogue pharmacies, and even more who have entered rehabilitation or suffered injuries due to these drugs," says Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, a sponsor of the bill, which was working its way through the House of Representatives at press time.

Everyday Abuse

Easy availability, combined with kids' misperceptions of prescription drug safety, may explain why pill popping has become so accepted as part of the weed-and-alcohol culture of high school parties. "I don't think it's bad. There's no particular reason I didn't do [prescription drugs]," says one recent Whippany Park graduate who was friends with several of the arrested kids. "It's not any worse than drinking or smoking pot. Yes, it's illegal, but taking pills doesn't make you a bad person by any means." The Partnership study found nearly one-third of teens (7.3 million) agree that there's "nothing wrong" with using prescription drugs without a prescription once in a while.

The ways kids are taking the drugs now underscores this relaxed attitude. "We're finding that teens are no longer holding exclusive 'pharm parties,' where they'd get together and bring all the pills they could find, the way they did in years past," says the Aspen Achievement Academy's Faddis. Instead, they take them throughout the day, as a routine part of life. "School was really stressful, so kids would pop pills or snort Adderall during class to make it go faster," explains Anders Torgersen, 17, of Huntington Beach, CA. Torgersen asserts that when he was an athlete and top student at a strict private middle school, pressure to excel led him to start taking prescription drugs. "I loved Vicodin because it made me feel like God," he says. "If I punched a wall, I couldn't feel it. I had more power and confidence on the pills." He began dealing the meds in his freshman year of high school. He estimates that 70 percent of his schoolmates used drugs.

As Ryan Haight's and Torgersen's experiences suggest, any kid — even bright, motivated high achievers — can be lured by prescription drugs. But experts do see some common threads. "Many of our students have self-esteem issues. They start using the pills as a way of self-medicating for school or family problems and underlying depression and anxiety," says Faddis, who in 2007 performed a small but suggestive analysis of 37 kids in his program. He found that 34 of them had been evaluated to have parent-child relationship problems, such as serious breakdowns in communication and mutual respect. Other research indicates that using drugs can make kids feel more independent and grown-up. Teens who take alcohol or any kind of illegal drugs report feeling older than their real age, found a 2007 study from the University of Alberta in Edmonton. "One explanation: Kids are using drugs because they think of drug-taking as an adult behavior," says Kelly Arbeau, Ph.D., coauthor of the study. Torgersen, who just started his senior year this September at the Oakley School in Oakley, UT, an addiction-recovery high school, echoes Arbeau's analysis. "I was trying so hard to be independent. I thought I was mature," he says. "I wasn't."

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