Access to Legal Drugs Fueling Teen Drug Culture

Cory, 21, says the idea of "hard" illicit drugs scared him.

"I knew as a kid that I would never try heroin or coke or crack, because it sounded so bad," he says.

But his experience with the prescription pain pill OxyContin rivals that of most any hard-core addiction. In less than one year, Cory had progressed from casual experimentation with the painkiller to a $50-a-day habit that cost him two jobs and sent him to the Scripps McDonald Center for alcohol and substance abuse treatment.

"People think it's harmless because it's a prescription pill," he says. "You look at it, and it looks harmless."

Now, an increasing number of teens may be using "harmless" prescription and over-the-counter drugs to get high. And with growing availability and recreational use, health experts fear the worst is yet to come.

A study released today by the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows a 23.2 percent decline in the use of illicit drugs like cocaine, marijuana and crack among eighth, 10th and 12th graders over the past five years.

That's the good news.

But a new threat in the form of legal drugs could be putting the health of millions of teens at risk.

Worse yet, a growing counterculture, fueled by the Internet, may be encouraging teens to experiment with legal drugs in increasing numbers.

"It clearly allows people to communicate information much more readily," says Dr. Fred Berger, medical director of the McDonald Center. "People look on the Internet for what they want to find, and they find it.

"Teens can say they are adults, and they can have Vicadin mailed to them. All they need is a credit card or debit card, and they will mail it to you."

"I think we've created a culture rooted in computer smarts and drug not-so-smarts," says Dr. Joel Saper, director of the Michigan Headache and Neurological Institute in Ann Arbor. "It's a culture of awareness and access."

For example, browse the home page of erowid.org, and you'll see a number of clickable photos of drugs and supplements. Entries include such illegal substances as LSD. But nestled between ecstasy and the veterinary tranquilizer ketamine is zopiclone -- a prescription sleep aid commonly known by the brand name Lunesta.

Click on this link, and you will find an informational page about the drug -- as well as testimonials from those who have used the drug recreationally.

The entries of each drug list common names, as well as any street names. Many come complete with a summary of positive effects, side effects and hangover/day after information listed in easy-to-reference tables.

Erowid isn't the only site of its kind out there. And though any explicit encouragement to abuse these drugs is absent from many of these sites, many see Internet resources like these as evidence of a growing culture of prescription and OTC drug abuse.

"Sites like these are a veritable how-to for people who are interested in using just about any drug imaginable," says Paul Doering, co-director of the Drug Information and Pharmacy Resource Center at Shands at the University of Florida. "These Web sites are downright frightening, and word spreads quickly."

"They just get it. It's just out there," Saper says. "These kids are self-medicating with the drugs that are available to them."

The Internet also makes it easier for would-be abusers to get their hands on these medications.

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