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Authorities report that prescriptions are the drug of choice for teens

POSTED: May 1, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Tom Reed/The Times

Hall County Coroner Marion Merck walks past grave sites at Memorial Park Cemetery. Three to five teenagers die of drug overdoses in Hall County each year, according to statistics. Though most of those cases are suicide, some are accidental overdoses, Merck said.

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The investigator sees it. The paramedic sees it. The coroner sees it.

Teen substance abuse, particularly of prescription drugs and alcohol, leads to arrests, overdoses and deaths each year in Hall County. And while alcohol remains the most common substance abused by kids in middle school and high school, pharmaceuticals have overtaken marijuana as the so-called "gateway drug" in today’s drug culture,
officials say.

"For the first time in the past century, we have something that has surpassed marijuana as the first-time drug of choice," said Sgt. Kenny Neece, an agent with the Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad, a law enforcement partnership between the Hall County Sheriff’s Office and Gainesville Police

Neece said the highest percentage of prescription drug abusers are age 19. And while his unit concentrates its enforcement efforts on busting distributors of illegal drugs, they face challenges in the form of pharmaceuticals. More than half of the pills teens are popping "aren’t coming from drug dealers," Neece said. "They didn’t even buy them. They got them for free from friends and relatives."

The most commonly abused drugs are also the most-prescribed, Neece said. They include drugs with the brand names Xanax, Lortab, Hydrocodone and Oxycontin. Ritalin and Adderall are also widely abused.

Neece said in many instances, parents are written prescriptions for legitimate purposes and only use a fraction of the pills allotted.

"They’re not being used up, so they sit in the medicine cabinet, and that’s how they reach the schools," he said.

While they seem to lack the taboo among teens that other drugs carry, prescription drug abuse can lead to the use of other drugs more associated with property crime and violent crime, including methamphetamine and cocaine, Neece said.

"If we can do something about the pharmaceuticals that lead to those drugs, we can put a dent in those numbers," he said.

Neece believes parents need to take stricter control of the pill bottles, and health care providers "need to be more discriminating about who they prescribe to and how much they prescribe."

‘Serious medical problems’

Hall County Emergency Medical Services Coordinator Tim Peebles has seen the consequences of prescription drug abuse and alcohol abuse among teens.

While Peebles says only a small percentage of the 60 to 80 medical calls answered in Hall County each day are drug- or alcohol-related, "they still pose a problem to the community, not only from a public safety standpoint, but a from a citizen standpoint. Parents need to know what their kids are doing and know who their kids are spending time with."

Many times the EMTs and paramedics won’t get a call until a teen has already lapsed into unconsciousness, or "serious medical problems are going on," Peebles said.

A "narcotic antagonist" known as "Narcan" is often administered intravenously for overdose patients, working to reverse or prevent the toxic effects of narcotic.

"The biggest problem is respiratory depression," Peebles said.

Paramedics may use a bag mask to breathe for the patient.

Sometimes, it’s hard to assess exactly what’s wrong with a patient, Peebles said.

Then there are the alcohol-related calls.

"Unfortunately, many times it involves automobile collisions," Peebles said. "Or a teen may have consumed alcohol to the point of alcohol poisoning."

And while Peebles is quick to note that "not every kid is a drug addict," he still believes it’s a problem.

"Some of these kids start experimenting with drugs then get addicted, and it’s a lot harder to get unaddicted," he said. "Unfortunately, I think we try to look the other way, hoping it’s not happening."

‘These deaths don’t leave an answer’

Marion Merck has had to deliver the news of drug-related overdose deaths to numerous parents of teenagers in his 20 years as Hall County coroner.

According to statistics kept by the DeKalb Medical Examiner’s Office, which performs most of Hall County’s autopsies, three to five teenagers die of drug overdoses in Hall County each year, Merck said. Merck said most are suicides, though some have been accidental.

"It alarms me, because it brings so much grief and pain to the relatives and friends," Merck said. "These deaths don’t leave an answer."

"It seems now that drugs are so easy to get," Merck said. "I wish we could come up with a way to make it a lot harder, but I don’t guess we ever will."

Merck said parents usually react first with disbelief when they learn of their teenage child’s death from a drug overdose.

"The next thing is, ‘Why? Why did this happen to my child?’ It’s something you can’t answer. You have to put the puzzle together and a lot of times you don’t have that missing piece," he said.

"None of us want to accept the fact that our child has died from drugs," Merck said. "And it’s not always from lack of raising at home. You do the best you can do, and they find some things they don’t need to find."


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