Popping Pills Latest Trend in Teen Drug Abuse

Heath Ledger's death has sparked new awareness about prescription drug abuse.

February 9, 2009, 6:04 PM

Feb. 13, 2008 -- When actor Heath Ledger died from what the coroner called an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, it got us to thinking about a story we first reported on two years ago: Teens abusing prescription drugs.

This disturbing trend has been increasingly well documented, as we saw when we visited a rehabilitation facility in Houston back then and met a young man named Jay.

Jay, then 17, had been a nationally ranked tennis player and a good student. His parents had no idea he was abusing prescription drugs. Despite years of his using an array of drugs, Jay's mother said her son seemed normal.

"He was still making good grades," she said, "still playing tennis. He looked like Mr. All-American, so who would think?"

What drugs, we wondered?

So Jay reeled them off: "Percocets, Oxycontin, Xanax, Vicodin, Ritalin, Adderall." Those were just a few of the drugs with which he had experimented, starting at age 13.

Jay said he had "black eyes" and "lost a lot of weight" and probably hadn't showered in a month when he checked into The Right Step, a small drug and alcohol treatment clinic in Houston.

Jay's story was not unique. The Right Step's adolescent program coordinator, Ernest Patterson, a former NBA star and a recovering addict himself, says abuse of pharmaceuticals was and is rampant among his young patients.

"Most of the kids that come here have actually experimented with Xanax," said Patterson. "They get it off the streets, 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."

How serious is the problem of prescription drug abuse among teens? "I still see kids that come to our facility, they continue to smoke marijuana," said Patterson. "But the majority of the kids that come here, most of them are prescription medications — that's their drug of choice."

National data supports Patterson's experience with young addicts. The Office of National Drug Control Policy says that while overall teen drug use is down nationwide, more teens abuse prescription drugs than any other illicit drug except marijuana. It claims that every day, 2,500 kids age 12-17 abuse prescription painkillers for the first time, and more people are getting addicted to prescription drugs.

Some teens mistakenly believe that it is safer to get high off prescription drugs than illegal drugs, a fact that alarms The Right Step's chief medical officer, Dr. Jason Powers.

"It's scary because kids nowadays are using heavy prescription drugs, which are just as dangerous if not more so than street drugs as their gateway drugs," said Powers, whose own experience as a drug-addicted doctor led him into recovery and a specialty in addiction medicine.

Dr. Powers also laments the trend that adolescents are abusing prescription drugs at a younger age, which he says makes it more difficult for them to break the cycle of addiction.

"The problem with an adolescent experimenting with drugs in general, but particularly with strong prescription pills, is that the disease of addiction starts earlier the earlier in age that you experiment," said Dr. Powers. "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."

There are plenty of ways to obtain prescription drugs — raiding home medicine cabinets, calling in a parent's prescription, forging signatures or ordering on the Internet.

Jay claimed he could find just about anything he wanted by simply roving school hallways.

"It's so easy," he told "Nightline" two years ago. "You just have to go to a candy man, the guy who sells drugs."

There is a culture of anything goes. A shocking and potentially deadly practice happens at so-called "pharm parties," where teens drop an array of pills into a bowl, then pass around the "trail mix" for the partygoers to "graze."

"They'll just reach their hands in there and just take a handful, and just take them," said Patterson. "It could be anything."

Though the obstacles to acquiring prescription medications are low, there are highs that are even easier to obtain from over-the-counter drugs available on any drug store shelf.

Young patients at The Right Step described "Robotripping" — spinning a bottle of over-the-counter Robitussin cough syrup on the end of a string to separate the ingredients — and then consuming the "drugs."

"There are actually drugs in Robitussin that come to the top, and you just drink the drug and you hallucinate," Jay said, who admitted to having tried the practice.

When we met him, Jay wanted to kick his drug habit. Despite our efforts, we have not been able to contact Jay since our first report. Unfortunately, the Right Step says he has relapsed since leaving treatment.