I was a teenager in the 70’s, a decade when there was a lot of experimentation with illegal drugs. Many of the people I knew smoked marijuana. I didn’t personally know anyone experimented with more serious drugs but I heard the stories, like a party game called “Punchbowl” where guests brought prescription drugs and added them to a bowl so everyone could help themselves to the unidentified pills. Today the stakes are even higher because games like “Punchbowl” are more widespread. Renamed “pharming parties,” kids now raid the medicine cabinet to get high where my generation was more likely to raid the liquor cabinet. The number of abusers of prescription drugs has mushroomed even as use of illegal drugs, such as heroin and marijuana, has decreased, according to a report by Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. The center says that about 2.3 million kids, 12 to 17, took prescription drugs illegally in 2003. That’s a whopping 212 percent increase from 1992.
The problem seems to be one of perception because in the 2009 University of Michigan Monitoring the Future Survey there were drops in tobacco, methamphetamine, cocaine, alcohol and hallucinogen use among 8th-12th graders. Teens now see certain drugs and alcohol as harmful and don’t believe these drugs are easily available to students anymore. Yet the increase in prescription drug abuse speaks to an attitude that “legal” drugs must not be harmful. After all, parents who may never touch street drugs are obtaining prescriptions for everything from pain to anxiety to lack of energy. Most commonly abused are central nervous system depressants like Xanax and Valium, opioids such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Demerol and stimulants like the popular ADHD drugs Ritalin, Strattera and Adderall.
Most teens have a tendency to feel indestructible and immune to problems others experience. They will experiment because they don’t often see the link with their behavior today and the consequences tomorrow. It’s impossible to predict which ones will experiment and stop and which will develop serious problems. Problems of depression, family history of alcohol or substance abuse, low self-esteem, peer pressure, difficulty sleeping and aggressive and rebellious attitude toward authority figures are all warning signs of teenagers at risk for developing serious prescription drug dependency.
One answer may be as simple as locking the medicine cabinet. But because teens can obtain drugs from their friends, education is crucial. The subject of using pharmaceutical substances to treat medical and emotional problems must be an open subject within the family; parents must first understand their own prescriptions – what they take and why they take it. Kids need to understand that even though a drug may be legal, it is only safe when taken correctly and under supervision. Pharmacists can help; no one knows more about the medications prescribed to family members. With the information they provide the conversation can begin on the way home from the neighborhood drug store.