COMMUNITY COMMENTARY: Protecting our youth from prescription pills

Seventy people filled the San Dieguito High School Academy’s Mustang Center on May 4 to hear a presentation called “What’s In Your Medicine Cabinet,” and learn about the urgent problem of prescription drug abuse in San Diego communities. Prescription medicines can be just as dangerous as illegal street drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin when misused.
For as long as there have been medicines and products designed to help manage injuries, relieve pain and cure diseases, there has been experimentation with overusing and abusing prescription and over-the-counter medicines.
“Prescription drug use is plaguing San Diego County, as well as the entire country,” said Thomas Lenox, a 24-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Agency. “We identified this a growing problem along the East Coast in the 1990s, and we have a full-blown epidemic now in San Diego, especially in the upper middle class communities in our county.”
Lenox cited the San Diego Coroner’s report from 2004-2006, which identified 17 Oxycontin-related deaths. From 2007-2009, the number jumped to 44 Oxycontin-related deaths, more than double the previous rate. Furthermore, nearly all poison deaths in the United States are attributed to prescription drugs.”
What’s caused this problem? Affluence, social change, national marketing of prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs have led to greater use among the public in general and to an increase in prescription drug abuse. The sheer number of prescriptions and drugs that are available has increased. There is aggressive marketing by the pharmaceutical industry — watch TV from 5 to 7 p.m. and you’ll see dozens of ads for prescriptions to “ask your doctor about.”
Illegal Internet pharmacies that sell drugs with fraudulent prescriptions are rampant. We are living in a time where there is a greater acceptance to medicate for any number of conditions and behaviors. Some kids have been taking medicines all of their lives and therefore it is routine.
“Prescription drugs are the most abused drugs nationwide, next to marijuana,” Lenox added. Kids 12 to 17 years old have the second highest prescription drug abuse rate, next to young adults 18 to 24 years old.
“I wish my parents talked to me about prescription drugs,” lamented an anonymous teenage girl on the DEA’s video taped portion of the presentation. I didn’t know they would cause withdrawals and that I’d feel terrible until I got more. “I never would have tried if I’d known that I would be an addict for the rest of my life.”
Our North County youth are accessing prescription meds such as pain relievers, (Oxycontin, Percocet, Percodan, Vicoden), depressants (Valium, Xanax) and stimulants (Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta) in several ways. Often the medicines are taken from families and friend’s medicine cabinets. Drugs can be bought from classmates. At open houses, medicines that are kept in the bathroom are taken. Kids say they know how to get them and from whom.
What is being done about this problem? Local, state and county agencies, prevention and treatment agencies, law enforcement, school districts, local healthcare organizations and politicians are working diligently to address this issue. Two countywide Prescription Drug Take Back Days, one in October 2009, and just recently on April 17, designed to rid homes of old and unused medicines resulted in 3000 pounds of medicines collected and properly disposed of by the DEA. A national hotline 1-877-662-6384 is available. Pending legislation is being drafted from Supervisor Pam Slater-Price’s office to support prescription drop-off boxes in 22 San Diego substations. Education and training about prescription drug abuse in increasing, through law enforcement training and community forums such as “What’s In Your Medicine Cabinet?”
What can you do? Talk to your kids and establish clear family rules and expectations. Enforce consequences if the rules are broken. Let your kids know that using a drug — even once — can cause serious and permanent consequences and put them in high risk and dangerous situations. Use everyday “teachable moments” to point out things in your daily life as examples of things you’d like your child to know about. More importantly, stay connected to your kids.

Nancy Perry-Sheridan, MSW, is a prevention specialist with San Dieguito Alliance for Drug Free Youth.

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