Underlying teen drug abuse is ease of access to prescribed pills

March 24, 2017 GMT

Stan was staggering down Cerrillos Road, high on four or five prescription pills, and trying to find his way home when he saw his mother driving down the road in the opposite direction.

He had nearly overdosed on Xanax. And his mother caught him.

Stan, a senior at The MASTERS Program who does not want his full name in the newspaper, had sought out prescription drugs that day in order to tolerate his mandatory community service project at school. He knew just where to get the stuff, too — a friend of his sold drugs he bought online from Canada. He gave Stan four or five varying doses of Xanax in an empty Chapstick tube and warned him to not take them all.

Stan didn’t heed his advice.

“I took one in the car. Immediately, I had this great sense of euphoria. Even the music was 100 times more intense. It’s like you’re drunk and high. No motor skills. You just lay on the ground a bunch,” Stan recalled.

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By that afternoon, against his friend’s warning, he took the rest of the pills. He only remembers the first. And then he was stumbling around Cerrillos Road.

Stan is not the only teen prone to using prescription drugs without a prescription.

On any given day, 2,500 teens between 12 and 17 years old try prescription drugs for the first time, according to drugfreeworld.org.

The New Mexico Department of Health reports that 75 percent of drug overdose deaths involved prescription drugs.

Prescription drugs tend to fall into three categories: opioids, depressants and stimulants. Some of the most common prescription drugs used by teens include Ritalin, Adderall, Xanax, oxycodone and codeine, which are taken, for the most part, in pill form. Most of these drugs differ from heroin by only one methyl group or so, and thus often lead teens to heroin use.

But why are teens turning to prescription drugs to get high?

“I don’t do it to hurt others. I do it to fill that void and the feeling of not having control,” Stan said. “As a teenager, your parents control everything. You can only control your attitudes and reactions. That’s why so many teens do drugs. They have no hobby, nothing to do, and that hurts. It’s easier to not be there.”

Shelley Mann-Lev, irector of the Santa Fe Prevention Alliance, believes that one of the main reasons that teenagers begin to use prescription drugs is because of how available they are.

“Two-thirds of teenagers get drugs from the medicine cabinets, and only half of families store [the drugs] where they think no one can find them. Prescription drugs are legal drugs and are perceived as less risky,” Mann-Lev said.

Brendon Baca, the Student Wellness Action Team Coordinator for Santa Fe Public Schools, agrees: “I think a big thing is access. A lot of our parents, grandparents have prescription pills that are unused. So I think the most important thing is disposal.”

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Tony, a recent graduate of Santa Fe Community College, began to use prescription drugs when he was 15 years old. Many of his family members had prescriptions, and he could easily take them from the cabinet. The first time he used prescription drugs, he was hanging out with friends when they decided to grab some Adderall from the cabinet.

He not only got hooked, but there were so many pills lying around his house that he began to deal them.

“I could take three [pills] from each person every week and they wouldn’t notice,” he said.

At Santa Fe Community College, he began to sell Xanax as well. “My really close friend wanted to get some and he bought like five. They were strong and he was really dumb and took them all. In the course of a week, he had to go to the hospital,” Tony said.

Within a week, the police were on Tony’s trail. His friend’s mother had looked through his messages, found out that he was buying drugs and called the police. While Tony regretted selling the drugs to his friend, it didn’t discourage him from dealing prescription drugs steadily to earn enough money to move out of his family’s home. And he used them, too.

“At the time, I was taking a lot of [the drugs] because I had so many so I wasn’t really there. I liked taking them. I know they are dangerous, but it’s a risk I am choosing to take,” he said.

Stan said his mother never understood that prescription drugs are not difficult for teens to get their hands on. “It’s absurdly easy,” he said.

Baca said that is probably true and that many parents are ashamed or embarrassed to get their children help for a problem like this.

“The … big elephant in the room is the stigma behind opiates,” Baca said. “I know that one of the hardest things for a parent is to tell someone else that their youth might have a problem, but it’s the best thing they can do for their youth.”

“Unfortunately, many parents are unaware of prescription drug misuse by their teens. But there are signs that can help parents detect the problem,” said Sean McCabe, a research professor for the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan.

Mann-Lev advises parents to look for sudden changes in their teen’s appearance or academics, and she suggests that parents ask their kids honestly if they are using drugs. Friends are also vital to helping identify and address the problem. “Peers are important,” she said. “Show you care. Don’t cut the relationship off and don’t ignore them. Try asking, ‘How can I support you?’ and then tell them some places they can go for help or support.”

Both Mann-Lev and Baca said, “It is better to have a mad friend than a dead friend.”

Experts say that resources are available to help parents and students, from the school district’s Teen Health Center at Santa Fe High to Al-Anon, a treatment program, and professional counselors who work in or outside the school district.

Baca said parents have to step in and seek professional help.

“It is important for parents to support their child’s recovery, but not their addiction,” he said. “In my opinion, you can’t take something out of someone’s hands without replacing it with something else. So, it is better to show our youth what they can do versus telling them what they can’t do.”

Juliana Brenner is a senior at Desert Academy. Contact her at julianabrenner@gmail.com.