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Prescription drug abuse is growing among teens
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Psychiatrist Jeff Black talks about the dangers of abusing prescription drugs

Addiction experts say they’re alarmed at the growing number of teens who are abusing prescription drugs.

"The pill thing is a bigger threat to kids than pot or alcohol," said Dr. Jeff Black, a psychiatrist at Laurelwood, Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s mental health unit. "It’s Russian roulette, basically."

Preventing such abuse is difficult, because prescription drugs are easy to obtain. You don’t need contact with a drug dealer. You don’t even need money. All you have to do is walk into a bathroom and open up the medicine cabinet.

"They just take drugs at random," said Betty Guilfoile, area services director for Avita Community Partners, the state-funded mental health agency in Gainesville. "Often it’s things people won’t know are missing, such as leftover Lortab (a narcotic) someone got from an ER visit. And on top of that kids will take alcohol, which is very dangerous."

Black said when adults have surgery, they’re routinely prescribed a bottle of strong painkillers. But usually the patient feels better after a few days, so there’s a lot of medicine left over.

But he said teens aren’t necessarily looking for narcotics. They’ll take just about anything that’s available, curious to see what effect it will have. Often they have no clue what the drug is, what it does, or what it’s for.

"You’ve got two blues and one red (pill) and a yellow, and it looks pretty, and you take them and you have no idea what to expect," he said.

Parents of toddlers know they have to keep all medicine locked away, because small children are liable to mistake pills for candy and eat them. But parents of teens probably don’t realize there’s a danger, believing their kids are old enough to know better.

But even teens who shy away from street drugs such as marijuana may think that prescription drugs are acceptable.

"They say, ‘It’s not like I’m some drunk or some pothead,’" Black said. "It’s medicine that was prescribed for someone. That’s an easy way to justify it."

But combining drugs can be worse than just sticking to one substance.

"Every drug affects a different chemical in the brain, so the more drugs you use, the more problems you’re going to have," said Merrill Norton, clinical assistant professor of pharmacy at the University of Georgia.

The issue has gained national attention recently. Black said he’s seen public-service announcements depicting "pharming" parties, at which teens grab a handful of pills out of a bowl as if they’re gobbling candy.

Though he believes that’s a bit of an exaggeration, Black said some teens do ingest a large number and variety of pills. Besides painkillers, they typically abuse stimulants and antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications.

"Mixing some types of drugs can kill you," he said. "We’ve seen some patients come into the ER whose breathing has stopped."

Black said the phenomenon of teens taking prescription drugs seemed to become popular about four or five years ago. He said unlike marijuana or other illicit drugs, pills are "easy to transport without being detected, and easily accessible."

Black said some kids are also combining prescription pills with whatever over-the-counter drugs happen to be in the medicine cabinet. He said teens are particularly fond of what they call "skittles," which is actually the cold medicine Coricidin. The product contains dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant that can create a mild high.

But Black said it also carries the risk of causing a stroke.

Guilfoile said parents should impress upon kids that no drug, no matter how innocuous it may seem, should be taken for recreational purposes.

But adults should also recognize that it’s normal for adolescents to want to experiment and to seek thrills. So it’s better to remove the temptation from them.

"I would love to see parents and grandparents keeping their prescription drugs locked up," Guilfoile said. "Or, if you’re not going to use it, just flush it."