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Generation Rx

5 June 2006

By Leigh Woosley

Legal drug use becoming epidemic with teens Cough syrup, cold medicine and doctor-prescribed drugs ubiquitous to bathroom medicine cabinets are staples in a teenage drug epidemic that experts fear could match or surpass that of cocaine in the 1980s.

Teenagers today abuse over-the-counter and prescription medication more than illegal, buzzword drugs like Ecstasy, meth, crack and cocaine, according to a recent national study from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America ( ).

Looking to get high, almost 20 percent of teenagers said they've abused prescription drugs and 10 percent said they've used multiple doses of cough medicine, according to the study that is based on a survey of more than 7,300 teens in seventh to 12th grades.

The findings inspired the study name, Generation Rx.

"It's like cocaine in the 80s," said Tom Hedrick, a founding director of the Partnership. "The cool people did it, and the experts said it wasn't addictive. Then you could get crack for $3 or $5 a high. If we're not careful, this could develop into the same epidemic because no one is paying attention."

He said parents rarely have a clue kids are abusing over-the-counter and prescription drugs, and drug-prevention programs haven't evolved yet to address the growing problem.

"It's important that we know the danger of these chemicals because they're not going to go away," said David Berntson of Crossroads Learning Experience, a company that provides prevention education in schools.

Focus of drug prevention is often put on illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco. And perhaps it's working, because teenage use of these substances is down, the study found.

Ecstasy use has dropped and smoking has dropped dramatically, while use of cocaine and crack is steady at about 8 percent of the nation's some 24 million teenagers.

Marijuana is still the No. 1 drug for teenagers with 37 percent of them saying they've used it, the study found.

"Seeing them abuse over-the-counter and prescription medication is really a groundswell change that we don't fully understand," Hedrick said. "We don't know why it's happening or if it's a replacement behavior, if they're using over-the-counter and prescription drugs as a replacement for street drugs."

The trend has sparked "pharming" parties where teenagers throw a melange of medication into a bowl, pick one out and hope for a high. Whatever feeling that ensues is often underscored -- and potentially catastrophized -- with the mixing of alcohol.

Marijuana and alcohol are why most come to the adolescent outpatient treatment at Palmer Drug Abuse Program, but counselors there are seeing a marked increase in abuse of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medication.

One drug turning up more and more in the program is Coricidin, known as triple-C or Skittles because of the pill's similarity to the small candy.

Coricidin is a cough-and-cold medicine that contains dextromethorphan, or DXM, a cough suppressant that's safe in small doses but when taken in large quantities acts as a hallucinogen that provides a euphoric, floating feeling. Some equate its effects with PCP.

Ten to 30 milligrams of DXM, which is found in about 100 different medications, is the amount used to treat a cold, but abusers take hundreds of milligrams at a time.

A 16-year-old in treatment at Palmer said he still uses Coricidin occasionally and takes nearly 20 pills at a time to pump almost 500 milligrams of DXM into his body. He started with eight pills at once but consistently needs more as his body acclimates to the drug.

"When I had been really bad on them I would take them all the time," said the teenager, who is at Palmer on a court order and doesn't want his name used. "I was very rarely sober. You just get in this mindset where you don't care. You don't care about anything. I didn't care about school. I hated being there. Everything annoyed me."

He said he wasn't alone at South Intermediate High School in Broken Arrow, where he used to go to school, and said getting high on triple-C and prescription drugs wasn't unusual. In fact, it was probably the most common way to do it, he said.

Students don't want to bring marijuana to school because drug dogs detect the scent. The teenager said he knows taking so much DXM at one time is dangerous and, while in the middle of a trip, he often promises to stop, but he returns to the drug a few days later.

"I just want to get the feeling again," he said.

DXM increases heart rate and could be fatal, but it's often a fix of choice because it doesn't show up in urine drug tests, said Tania Stewart, a licensed alcohol-and-drug counselor who works in Palmer's outpatient adolescent program.

"It scares me to death how much it's grown and how popular it's become because I don't think people understand how dangerous it is," she said. "These drugs are still lethal and there are great dangers, but I don't think there's that stigma. It's not like they're going to the corner and meeting a drug dealer."

This apparent growth in the abuse of standard medication is frightening because it's widespread, normalized and perceived by kids as somewhat innocuous, according to the Partnership study.

The study showed that teenagers believe using prescription and over-the-counter medication is somehow less harmful and more acceptable than street drugs.

Forty percent of teens said prescription medications are "much safer" than illegal drugs even if they aren't prescribed by a doctor.

Thirty percent said there's "nothing wrong" with using these drugs "once in a while" even without a prescription. More than half couldn't strongly agree that using cough medicines to get high was a risky behavior.

"This is what we called normalized, and normalized is a concern because it's hard for them to reject these drugs if they view using them as something everybody else is doing," Hedrick said. "While one in five kids (who reported abusing prescription drugs) isn't the majority, perception is reality."

These drugs are surprisingly easy for kids to get. Coricidin is available in the drug store beside cough drops and vitamin-C supplements. Unlike other cough-and-cold medication, the tiny pills aren't secured behind pharmacy doors and are therefore easy to shoplift.

Prescription drugs would seem harder to get but they're apparently not.

"They get it from parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts. It's sold in schools," Stewart said. "Kids will find out someone who is sick and they'll go through their medicine cabinets. A lot of times the kids are getting it from their family."

The Internet makes access to these drugs alarmingly easy for teenagers who can now reach thousands and thousands of medicine peddlers from their own computers.

"Parents find (bookmarked) on their children's computers 40 or 50 Web sites where they can get drugs," Hedrick said. "The ability to get them is not a problem at all, and the kids can get them younger and younger. That is what's going on now."

Copyright 2006. Used with permission from Tulsa World.

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