Prescription abuse has deadly consequences for youths
A trip to the dentist can make a teenager popular these days. Students who have their wisdom teeth pulled often are peppered with requests from classmates for leftover painkillers. And these "friends," Laurie Serra says, are willing to pay for the kind of medications that killed 493 Floridians 25 and younger in 2010. "The best place to get drugs is out of a medicine cabinet, whether it's at your house, your friend's or your neighbor's," said Serra, whose stepson died of an overdose in 2008. Serra, president of the Pinellas County chapter of Narcotic Overdose Prevention & Education, known as NOPE, hears stories like this all the time. It's why she and law enforcement investigators remain enormously concerned about the accessibility of prescription painkillers and other pharmaceuticals.An estimated 22 percent of American high school seniors report they have misused prescription amphetamines, tranquilizers, sedatives or narcotics, according to the annual Monitoring the Future survey released last month. And though that rate has remained stable since 2007, it's no reason to relax, said Pinellas County Sheriff's Sgt. Dan Szido, supervisor of a multiagency pharmaceutical drug task force. Narcotics investigators used to deal almost exclusively with people abusing illicit drugs, Szido said. Now, it's likely four prescription drug abusers will be arrested for every person busted for illegal substances such as marijuana or heroin. And many started abusing drugs as teens, he said. "Someone who is abusing prescription drugs at that age is doing it recreationally. And at those ages, you're affecting the chemical balance of who you are," Szido said. "When you are 18 or 19, you're just starting to live." Alcohol and marijuana remain the top drugs of choice for American teens. The survey, conducted since 1975 by the University of Michigan, reports 64 percent of high school seniors report drinking alcohol; 36 percent tried marijuana. * * * * * Advocates aren't comforted by those numbers or the rate of prescription drug use. Any drug use — including tobacco — can have long-term implications to a child's still-growing body. "You don't want kids doing it at all," said Sue Rusche, president and CEO of National Families in Action in Atlanta. "The more we can delay, the better." The human brain, from adolescence to about age 25, is drastically remodeling itself, said Lynn Wecker, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of South Florida. Chemical changes occur throughout adolescence, shedding excess cells and eventually turning impulsive teens into "normal and sane and rational thinkers," she said. Any type of continuous drug use can permanently alter that development, Wecker said. "If you introduce any drug that interferes with these normal processes," she said, "it's going to have lasting consequences." That's a key message groups such as NOPE are trying to share with parents and teens, said Serra, who regularly speaks to Pinellas County middle and senior high students. Last year, 35,000 students heard NOPE speakers explain that the prescription drug battle isn't only about junkies. It's about every teen who thinks about experimenting. "It can cost them their life … you don't have to be addicted to die," Serra said. Though crackdowns on convenience stores help curb the amount of beer reaching underage drinkers, law enforcement has to "think outside the box" to fight the flow of prescription drugs that are so easy to get, Szido said. Some of the most successful efforts are public prescription drug drop-off drives. Several times a year, law enforcement officers set up in supermarkets and mall parking lots, offering to properly dispose of prescription drugs. "We're trying to make it easy … so people can empty their medications as they go to the grocery store," said Cindy Grant, president of the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance, which holds biannual drives with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. * * * * * Take-back programs are a key reason teen prescription drug abuse rates have not escalated more, Monitoring the Future researchers say. The most recent national drive, for example, collected more than 188 tons of medications, according to the coordinating agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA recently announced it is holding its next National Prescription Drug Take Back Day on April 28. Keeping drugs away from teens is essential during this time when brain impulse control is low, said Rex Philpot, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the USF College of Medicine. Adolescents who start using drugs before age 14 are four times more likely to develop lifelong dependency issues, he said. "During adolescence, you're still tuning the system," Philpot said. "You're more prone to impulse, and you're more prone to addiction because you're more prone to try it." Szido said teen drug abusers don't become addicts because they're dealing with chronic injuries and pain. Keeping prescription pills away from them is just a small part of abuse and addiction, he said. "This problem is not going away any time soon," he said. "We're just scratching the surface."
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