Generation Rx Increasingly, teens raid medicine chest to get high
Sunday, June 12, 2005
By George Krimsky and Joyce Peck
Copyright © 2005 Republican-American
The responsibility for drinking, smoking, snorting and shooting up among minors has always been placed first on the home doorstep. But counselors, teachers and school administrators are witnessing a new craze that puts parents even more on the spot: The raiding of Mom's and Dad's medicine chest for prescription drugs that can deliver a new thrill or another way to escape stress.
Prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet are the new drugs of choice throughout the nation, as well as here. The Partnership for a Drug Free-America released a study in April that indicated one in every five teenagers in America has abused legal painkillers, signaling the arrival of "Generation Rx."
In addition, teenagers are getting high from medications that are increasingly prescribed for hyper-activity, such as Ritalin and Adderall.
The partnership study said 10 percent of teenagers have tried these "psychostimulants" without a doctor's permission.
Kids like to crush the time-release capsules, getting an 8- or 12-hour dose all at once. The effect is a euphoric high or a jolt of energy.
The experts say the consequences can be serious: Overuse can lead to addiction and even death.
Those familiar with the problem in this area are not ready to call it a crisis, but say it's a trend that needs addressing before it gets out of hand.
While the use of illegal drugs, such as marijuana and chemical concoctions such as Ecstasy, continues to be widespread, the legality and ease of obtaining drugs that are prescribed or sold over the counter has complicated the campaign to curtail them.
"It's just easier to pop a pill at school without people noticing," said Ben Bucchioni, 15, a freshman at Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury. Once a drug user, young Bucchioni went clean a year ago, and started talking publicly about the dangers. He urges parents to get more involved in their kids' lives.
Schools in the region have reacted to the pill-popping craze in various ways. Some deny they have a serious problem. Others have ignored or dismissed inquiries. And others have faced the issue squarely. Region 10, which serves the small towns of Harwinton and Burlington, expelled 13 students this past spring after a spate of drug incidents that alarmed school officials enough to convene public meetings about the problem.
"The students, and some parents, are not taking it seriously enough," said the principal of Region 10's Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, Karissa Niehoff.
Kim Gallo, vice principal of Region 14's Nonnewaug High School, insists that drug use has to be admitted and dealt with head-on.
"Parents shouldn't want to send their children to a school that denies it has drugs," she said at a public meeting in March.
When the Sunday Republican conducted a phone survey this April of area schools to find out how many drug-related suspensions have occurred this year, administrators in more than one-third of the schools did not reply, declined to cooperate or said those figures would not be available until this summer.
Of the 17 school districts that replied to the survey, 42 percent of the high schools and middle schools reported an increase in student suspensions this year over last year, while 58 percent said such activity was either the same or less than last year.
How it Works
Interviews with students, counselors, and educators draw a picture of casual theft from home medicine cabinets and quiet transactions in schoolyards.
An athlete on crutches is a prime target for someone looking to buy extra pain pills, for example. A 10-milligram tablet of powerful OxyContin sells for about $5. Once crushed and taken with a drink, it brings on a numbing high not unlike marijuana. If washed down with alcohol, the high can be more intense, and more dangerous. Lethargy in the eyes or slurred speech are signs of use. The short-term risk could be "respiratory depression," according to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Over a long period, painkiller abuse can be addictive, with increasingly higher doses or dangerous mixing with other drugs, such as sedatives.
Another drug source is the student who is prescribed Ritalin or Adderall for reducing hyperactivity, commonly called attention deficit disorder (ADD). For those who don't need this medication, it has what is called a paradox effect of making the user more alert and energized. Users often seem unusually nervous. Short-term dangers could be heart attack or seizures. Over the long term, users can be consumed by feelings of hostility or paranoia.
Time-released cold medicines, antihistamines, sedatives and tranquilizers are also abused to such an extent that many pharmacists are cautious about selling even over-the-counter medicine to underage buyers.
Sniffing household chemicals -- such as glue, cleaning fluid, and nail-polish remover -- is particularly popular with adolescents. Butyl nitrate, which is sold as tape-head cleaner, is referred to as "rush" or "climax" for its effect when sniffed or huffed, or inhaled through the mouth.
Any "psychoactive" substance taken in concentrated form will produce a buzz of some kind, but the result can be permanent damage if taken for sustained periods, experts say. "More gets into your blood quicker, and that can lead to a change in your brain," explained Dr. Gregg Grinspan of the Hungerford Emergency Department at Winsted Health Center.
Students familiar with the system said there is no single dealer, such as those associated with hard, illegal narcotics. "It's more like a chain of kids, passing the word," said Scott Conover, 17 of Naugatuck.
How do they know what to do with prescription drugs to get a high? They experiment, share their experiences with peers and get new ideas from the Internet, the students reported.
Local schools have a growing list of rules aimed at curbing consumption of drugs, alcohol and tobacco on school grounds.
Infractions usually carry an automatic 10-day suspension, followed by a hearing by school board members on whether the student should be expelled.
The abuse of legally prescribed drugs is seen as one way to get around the growing welter of restrictions, students and administrators reported. It's almost like a game to beat the system. For those who don't have a physician's permission to use the drug or can't find a source in school, they use a computer with a good printer to forge a prescription form.
"There are a lot of doctors' kids who can get copies of the real thing," said Matt Gernien, 17, of Oxford.
"Children say they choose to use drugs simply because they want to," explained Joy Reardon, executive director of the Substance Abuse Action Council of Central Connecticut, based in Bristol. "To relieve boredom, feel good, forget their troubles and relax, have fun, satisfy their curiosity, take risks, ease their pain, feel grown up, show independence, belong to a specific group, look cool."
In the face of all that pressure, consequences tend to be ignored.
"These students think they are invincible," said Bill Kania of the Wheeler Clinic in Plainville.