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New Addiction on Campus: Raiding the Medicine Cabinet

Mar 25, 2008

by Elizabeth Bernstein

Parents have long worried whether their kids at college are drinking too much or getting stoned. But alcohol and marijuana aren't the only substances they should be concerned about: In recent years, a growing number of young people have begun abusing prescription opiates.

The problem is part of a larger trend of abuse of prescription drugs among teenagers. Several years ago, attention-deficit drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall became popular among students, who used them to improve concentration or lose weight. Now there is evidence that young people are increasingly moving on to even more dangerous drugs—powerful painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet.

Earlier this month, several drug experts testified at a congressional hearing called Generation Rx about the rising abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs among America's youth. In 2006, 2.2 million people ages 12 and older said they started abusing pain relievers within the past year, with young adults ages 18–25 showing the greatest overall use of any age group, according to Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.To be sure, college students use these drugs much less often than alcohol and pot. Still, the development is alarming because these painkillers are highly addictive. From 2002 to 2006, the annual prevalence of use of narcotics other than heroin among college students rose to 8.8% from 7.4%, according to a University of Michigan study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. For OxyContin, annual prevalence of use doubled, to 3%; the use of Vicodin rose to 7.6% from 6.9%.

The trend is being spurred by the availability of these drugs. Thanks to the huge increase in the number of prescriptions over the past decade, many kids can easily find drugs in mom or dad's medicine cabinet or obtain them from a friend. If all else fails, they can purchase them from an online pharmacy.

Some people don't perceive prescription drugs to be dangerous, precisely because they are government approved. And not only do young people underestimate how addictive opiates are, many don't even know what drug they are taking. For some, keg parties are being replaced by “pharm parties,” where kids bring whatever pharmaceuticals they can find, mix the drugs up in a big bowl and eat them like candy, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The results can be tragic. Leonard J. Paulozzi, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the congressional hearing that mortality rates from unintentional drug overdoses are currently four to five times as high as they were during the "black tar" heroin epidemic of the 1970s and more than twice what they were during the peak years of crack cocaine use of the early 1990s. From 1999 to 2005—the most recent information available—the increase was driven largely by prescription opiates.

There is anecdotal evidence that students who start with prescription opiates may be graduating to heroin. “My friends convinced me that it would get me a lot higher,” says Chris Arnold, a 25-year-old from Monroe, Conn., who says his switch from OxyContin to heroin ultimately caused him to drop out of college.

Although fewer than 1% of college students report using heroin, a number that's remained steady for years, some emergency-room doctors say they're seeing more heroin overdoses among college students.

Don't rely on your child's school to tell you about possible drug use. Federal law allows a college to inform parents if a student under 21 receives a drug or alcohol violation, but some schools choose not to. So what do you look for?
Experts say that signs of opiate abuse in students are similar to those of other drugs: a sudden drop in grades, loss of interest in studies or favorite activities, change of friends, lying, stealing, unexplained mood swings and financial problems. “Attend to what the bank account looks like—a first sign is if it goes very quickly,” says David Deitch, chief clinical officer at Phoenix House, which runs drug-rehabilitation programs in nine states.

As always, you should talk to your child about the dangers of drugs, including prescription ones. Stay in touch, visit your child if you are concerned and ask to meet their friends. In addition, you may want to keep medicines at home locked up. Parents and teens who want more information on drug abuse and prevention can find it on several Web sites: justthinktwice.com, drugfree.org, dare.org or parents4achange.com.

“I tell parents with kids who are away: Go with your gut,” says Mary Marcuccio, founder of Parents 4 a Change, which works to raise awareness about the use of opiates and heroin among teenagers. “If there is something odd or out of line, investigate it.”