Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), is most worried by the growing trend among teens of sampling a variety of prescription drugs and then drinking alcohol.
“Kids are not pharmacologists,” she says. “They may say, ‘Fentanyl, OxyContin — what’s the difference?’ So they take a bunch of things and may combine them with alcohol.”
That’s a deadly miscalculation, Dr. Volkow says. The amount of opioid painkiller needed to induce euphoria is already frighteningly close to the amount that can kill you. That margin virtually disappears if you add alcohol or tranquilizers like Klonopin, Valium, and Xanax, which also depress the brain’s respiratory center. One 40 mg methadone pill, washed down with two gin and tonics, can be fatal. Says Dr. Volkow, “You are playing a game of Russian roulette you do not understand.”
“Honestly, Whit was just being a kid,” says her mother, Tammi Lizotte, a vibrant woman with short red hair and startlingly blue eyes. “She was not popping a million pills.” Indeed, the medical examiner told Lizotte that Whitney hadn’t taken a large drug dose. But she and her roommate Brandy had mixed methadone, an addiction-treatment drug also widely used to control pain, with Klonopin and washed them down with a few beers. That’s a popular combination for kids looking for a quick high, police say.
Matty had taken fentanyl, an opioid that in some formulations is hundreds of times more powerful than heroin. Used properly, fentanyl can enable patients to cope with cancer pain. Taken in excess, it creates euphoria — then can shut down the respiratory center of the brain.
Matty Rix wouldn’t fit anyone’s idea of a hardened drug addict, friends and family say. Mischievous and affectionate, Matty was a gentle boy, despite his 100 wrestling victories. “He was always the kid behind other kids’ laughter,” says Matt Edwards, 18, a close friend and wrestling buddy.
“He wasn’t afraid to give me a hug or a kiss goodbye or to say ‘Dad, I love you,’” recalls his father, veteran high school wrestling coach Matt Rix. “He wasn’t ashamed to say that in front of anybody.”
But the sweet-faced youth had become addicted to OxyContin in his junior year in high school, after he broke his hand taking jumps in an ATV. Surgery left him with steel screws in his hand and a three-month prescription for painkillers in his wallet. Soon Matty started taking risks to enhance the drug’s effects, crushing the OxyContin pills to remove their slow-release coating and snorting them. Ultimately he tried heroin.
After narrowly surviving a heroin overdose in January 2009, though, Matty vowed to stay clean. “He was scared to death,” says his father. “But it seemed like a big weight had been taken off his chest.”
Matty moved into his own apartment, attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and woke early every day to work with his father on electrical jobs. “It was about trust,” recalls Rix, who says he misses his son’s goodnight calls and companionship. “He wanted to earn it back.”
But Matty, depressed after breaking up with a girlfriend, faltered when he spotted a fentanyl patch, still in a drugstore bag, atop a refrigerator in a house where he and his father were doing work for a local contractor. The patch — infused with three days’ worth of painkiller — was intended for the homeowner’s dog, who’d just had surgery. No one is sure whether Matty chewed the patch or scraped off the drug and snorted it. But once he did, his battle was lost.
“People think of drugs as coming into the United States from another country,” says David Pavlik, a senior intelligence analyst at the Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Center. “But increasingly, these drugs are coming from inside our own medicine cabinets.”