A Dangerous Trend: Prescription Drug Addiction

By Julia Hoppock

Feb 6, 2008 5:50pm

Howard Rosenberg Reports:

The determination by the New York medical examiner that 28-year-old actor Heath Ledger "died as the result of acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone (Oxycontin), hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam (Xanax) and doxylamine," won’t come as much of a shock to those struggling with addiction.   It appears that no one drug was taken in excess in Ledger’s case and the examiner concluded that "the manner of death is accidental, resulting from the abuse of prescription medications."

The use and abuse of prescription pharmaceuticals among young people is an ever-growing and troubling trend that Nightline began documenting two years ago in our series, "Pharm Country."  Back then, anchor Cynthia McFadden, heard the first-hand tales of teenagers at a residential drug treatment program in Houston called The Right Step about their use of over-the-counter cold remedies and prescription drugs like oxycodone (Oxycontin) and alprazolam (Xanax) stolen from their parents’ medicine cabinets.

Last weekend, the Partnership for a Drug Free America unveiled a new ad campaign during the Super Bowl targeting prescription drug abuse.  The ad campaign comes on the heels of the latest "Monitoring the Future" survey by the White House Office of  National Drug Control Policy and the University of Michigan that indicated  "more teens abuse prescription drugs than any other illicit drug, except marijuana — more than cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine combined. In the Partnership’s annual tracking study, 1 in 5 teens reported abusing a prescription pain medication, and the same number report abuse of a prescription stimulant or tranquilizer."

That trend is seen first-hand by The Right Step counselor Ernest Patterson, who told Nightline just last week that, "most of the kids that come here have actually experimented with Xanax.  That’s the one drug that I see a lot of the kids here that they get it off the streets or, or even sometimes the medication is prescribed to their parents, and they’re able to get into the medicine cabinet or to their mom’s purse, and they’re taking medication and they just take it illegally." 

Dr. Jason Powers, an addictionologist and The Right Step medical director, explained that while alcohol and marijuana used to be the "gateway" drugs among his teen patients, in the past few years, that’s changed. "It’s scary because kids now a days are using heavy prescription drugs which are just as dangerous if not more so than street drugs as their gateway drugs. So their first exposure to a life of addiction sets them back." 

Powers says that it is a dangerous trend especially because teens are experimenting with prescription drugs earlier.  "The disease of addiction starts earlier the earlier in age that you experiment.  So a 13-year-old trying Oxycontin is going to have those brain changes a lot more rapidly than a 21-year-old trying his first drink."

Nightline will continue our Pharm Country series in upcoming programs

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