Teenage Drug Diversion—Part 1

JUNE 01, 2005
Cmdr John Burke

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America recently announced the results of its 2004 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study. This survey of more than 7300 teenagers is the largest continuing evaluation of teens and drug abuse in the country. The study found that about 20% of teenagers have tried prescription pain relievers for nonmedical purposes. This percentage was greater than that for ecstasy, cocaine, crack, or LSD.

Not surprisingly, the most popular prescription drug of abuse is hydrocodone, with 18% of the teens indicating that they have used it to get high. This proportion equates to about 4.3 million youths in the United States using this painkiller to get a rush into their bodies. The study also looked at OxyContin specifically but did not look at other forms of oxycodone—something I would like to have seen. OxyContin was found to be a problem in about 10% of the youth.

Because most of these drugs are not being legitimately prescribed to the teenagers, the question is, where are they getting the drugs? One of the best answers is, likely from their parents', friends', or other relatives'medicine cabinets.

Over the past few years, teenagers have found that prescription drugs can be a good or better source for their high than traditional drugs. If they can find these drugs in medicine cabinets, there is another bonus—the drugs are free! Why should they pay for illicit drugs for which they have no idea of the purity, when they can be assured that their tablets'contents are backed by the world's pharmaceutical industry?

Many times teens can access these drugs in their own home when their parents do not discard unused pain medication. Some teens may have a younger brother who takes methylphenidate on a regular basis, and a few pills taken every weekend are not really missed. It is dangerous enough when the teens take these pills themselves, but they often share the pills with their peers, who may be opiate-naive and even more susceptible to overdoses.

The advent of pain management and the increase in home care for the terminally ill have unfortunately helped prescription drug-seeking teenagers. The source may be a teen or a friend, relative, or neighbor who is legitimately taking large quantities of pain relievers. Because of the large amount of these drugs available in residences, teenagers who have access may be able to be a prescription drug resource to their friends.

One recent tragedy involved a teenager whose friend's live-in grandmother had recently died. The family had not destroyed the remaining prescription opioids that were left after her death. The teenager experimented with some remaining fentanyl and then went home late at night and fell asleep. His father went in to wake him late in the morning after he did not get up and found him dead from an overdose of the potent drug.

Maybe one of the most important messages law enforcement and pharmacists can impress upon parents across the nation is to know what is in your medicine cabinet. Drugs that are currently being used, especially controlled substances, should be secured and taken as directed. If children are in the home, or if teenagers have access through babysitting or other means, parents should keep their medication in nontraditional but safe areas.

When patients have finished their medications, the drugs should be properly disposed of according to the state's regulations and laws. Patients also should understand that giving any of their prescription medicine to others can be a felony drug crime, and certainly can be dangerous for the ultimate user.

Next month we will discuss some other resources teenagers may have to procure prescription drugs illegally.

John Burke, director of the Warren County, Ohio, drug task force and retired commander of the Cincinnati Police Pharmaceutical Diversion Squad, is a 32-year veteran of law enforcement. For information, he can be reached by e-mail at burke@choice.net, via the Web site www.rxdiversion.com, or by phone at 513-336-0070.