“Kids think prescription drugs are safer than street drugs because you can buy them in a drugstore,” says Nancy Coffey, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency official for New England, one of the nation’s hot spots for prescription drug abuse. “But they’re more powerful. And that’s where kids get into trouble.”
Lots and lots of kids. Nearly one in five teens has used prescription drugs to get high; one in ten high school seniors reports having abused a prescription drug in the past year. And that’s just what teens are willing to admit. They say they like the woozy, light-headed feeling that drugs like Vicodin, used in excess, can induce. “It takes everything away,” says Jack,* 17, from rural Maine. “You don’t feel hurt; you don’t feel stress. Nothing bothers you.”
Accidental fatal drug overdoses have soared by 500 percent since 1990, and federal officials say prescription medications — primarily painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin, and methadone, all synthetic versions of opium — are largely to blame. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioid painkillers now cause more lethal overdoses than heroin and cocaine put together. Most alarming: The rate of fatal overdose among 15- to 24-year-olds has spiked 300 percent in recent years.
Young people simply don’t understand that even legal prescription drugs have a “wild-card factor,” says Thomas Andrew, MD, New Hampshire’s chief medical examiner. Methadone, the biggest prescription drug killer in New Hampshire, kicks in slowly, then lingers at full strength. That long “half-life” is dangerous for anyone not used to the drug, Dr. Andrew says. “They’ll take 40 milligrams, which is a big dose, and a little while later, they’ll say, ‘I’m really disappointed. I thought I’d get a buzz on from this. I’m just going to take another 40.’
“But by the time the full 80 milligrams kicks in, it’s not going to make them feel the way they want to feel,” Dr. Andrew says. “It’s going to stop their respiration.”