For some teenagers, drug use is just a trip to the bathroom away.
Abuse of prescription and over-the-counter medicines has climbed in the past decade as youths have turned to these legally available — though often illegally obtained — medications for a high. Unbeknownst to adults, teens may acquire these drugs from the medicine cabinets of parents, relatives, friends or even their babysitting clients.
Part of the problem lies in how difficult it can be to get rid of the drugs.
Now, it has become a lot easier. Many pharmacies and some public safety offices have installed drop boxes where the medications can be disposed of securely. Adding to that list, the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office last week announced it was installing a drug collection unit in the lobby at 18100 Cumberland Road in Noblesville.
It’s all part of a broad effort to fight back against what some have called an epidemic of prescription drug abuse.
Since 1990, the number of deaths from prescription drug overdose has tripled. On average 46 people die from prescription drug overdoses each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Among 12- to 25-year-olds only alcohol and marijuana are abused more than prescription drugs, according to the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, a network of more than 5,000 community coalitions that work against drug abuse with a focus on youth. About 21 percent of 12-graders in 2013 said that they had used a prescription drug at some point in their lives without medical supervision, according to a University of Michigan study.
Prescription drugs, such as narcotics and amphetamines, can be particularly hard to combat.
“It’s the fact that these medicines are legal that makes it very challenging,” said Arthur Dean, CADCA chairman and chief executive officer. “These medicines are found in most household medicine cabinets, so therefore young people believe that they are safe. … Young people think they are safer than illegal drugs, and they are not.”
Early indications are that efforts to reduce prescription drug abuse may be working. Last week the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy reported that in 2012, the latest year data are available, the number of deaths from prescription painkillers dropped 5 percent to 16,007.
Similarly, the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that the number of people who abuse prescription drugs had dropped to 6.5 million from 6.8 million in 2012.
However, those numbers are still more than double the number of people who report using heroin, cocaine and hallucinogens combined.
So advocates have every intention of doing everything they can to keep those trends headed in the right direction. On MondayCADCA will host its annual Twitter chat focusing on the problem of prescription and over-the-counter drug abuse.
Part of the problem is that many people who suffer from pain have completely legitimate reasons to have access to these medications. Still, they can be desired commodities. Many states in the past decade saw the rise of so-called pill mills, or pain clinics, where doctors handed out prescriptions to patients who did not need to take them.
In the same period that prescription drug abuse skyrocketed, so did the number of painkiller prescriptions, increasing fourfold. In 2013, doctors wrote more than 200 million such prescriptions, said Dr. Jack Stein, director of the office of science policy and communications at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
While that fact alone can’t explain the recent epidemic of prescription drug abuse, it’s likely a factor, Stein says.
“In any good scientific analysis we always have to be cautious,” he said, “but there’s certainly a strong association.”
Prescription medicines are not the only legal drugs that contribute to the problem.
Some teens turn to over-the-counter cough medicines containing dextromethorphan, or DXM, for a quick if brutal high that can bring with it nausea, vomiting and muscle spasms.
“How they came up with this idea, we do not know or why,” said Emily Skor, executive director of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association Educational Foundation. “We do know it’s a high of last resort. It’s not a good high. It’s pretty unpleasant and has some pretty nasty side effects. …. We tend to think that if they can’t find some other way to get high, they will go to cough medicine.”
Youths may actively go online, looking for information on how to abuse cough syrup. In some cases, teens may ingest as much as 25 times the recommended dose in quest of a high.
The cough syrup itself is easy enough to get, from many medicine cabinets. In many states, adolescents can go into any drugstore and legally buy a bottle with their own money. Some just steal it.
Several measures, however, seem to be working against both over-the-counter drug abuse and prescription medicine abuse. Community anti-drug coalitions have been hard at work, educating parents and children about the problem. Research shows that when parents address the problem with their children, they are 50 percent less likely to abuse prescription or OTC drugs.
About 90 percent of retailers voluntarily have announced that they will not sell medicines with DXM to anyone under the age of 18, and a handful of states have passed legislation to this effect.
Other, more Draconian measures also have helped to nibble away at the numbers involving prescription drug abuse, such as cracking down on those pill mills. Most states have instituted electronic databases that monitor prescriptions to ensure that patients are not doctor-shopping and abusing painkillers.
Offering people a way to dispose of unwanted medicines helps, too. Twice a year since 2010 the DEA has held drug take-back days that have collected a total of more than 4.1 million pounds, or more than 2,100 tons, of prescription drugs.
“This is a significant step towards making people’s medicine cabinets safer and reducing potential diversion,” said Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the DEA. “It’s certainly not a silver bullet, but it’s definitely the right step.”
The expanding number of local drop-off sites, like at the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, is contributing, as well.
Another step is being taken by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It is working to improve education for doctors about when it’s appropriate to prescribe narcotics and how to screen a patient for misuse, Stein said.
At the same time, Stein said, he and others recognize that simply outlawing these drugs is not the answer.
“We have to acknowledge that these medications were developed to treat conditions, there is legitimate pain and there is legitimate use for these medications,” he said. “Our goal is not to rid the country of prescription medications that are needed to treat pain, but it is a balance.”
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This post originally appeared on jconline.com