My turn: Prescription drug abuse can kill

Posted: Wednesday, April 02, 2008

I am writing in concern of an increasing epidemic in Juneau, as well as the rest of the nation. The epidemic I am talking about is youth abusing prescription drugs such as OxyContin and oxycodone.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse's annual survey reported in 2005 that OxyContin use by 12th-graders was up 40 percent nationwide.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's national survey in 2007, more than 2.1 million teens abused prescription drugs. The Drug Enforcement Agency reported that OxyContin is highly addictive and that abusers can easily compromise the controlled release formulation for a more "morphine-like high." The opiates in the prescription drug, like heroin, are very effective at treating moderate to severe pain. Unfortunately this ingredient also happens to be highly addictive and becomes an easy trap for the youth involved.

The pills were designed as a time-release drug that, once swallowed, would provide pain relief for up to 12 hours. The drug comes in various potencies, from 10 to 80 milligrams. The 80 mg pills are known to be the most desirable pill for the "street user."

The pills are often crushed up and then snorted, smoked, or injected. Therefore, the effects of these pills are felt all at once. The body is constantly trying to create equilibrium, hence when high amounts of opiates are introduced into the brain the natural production of chemicals in the body is halted. The longer the time spent using opiates the longer the recovery process.

Addiction is complex. Opiate withdrawal produces severe physical symptoms including vomiting, upset stomach, cramping, restless leg syndrome, sweating, diarrhea and loss of appetite for three to seven days. After the initial symptoms subside, a person is left with feelings of depression, lack of motivation and feelings of hopelessness, for months to years, depending on the amount of time used. Without treatment, these feelings prompt the individual to abuse again. As more of the substance is needed each time to produce the desired effect, abusers move closer and closer to what can be a lethal dose.

An 80 mg pill can cost up to $200 here in town. Youth are becoming quickly addicted and often resort to lying and stealing from their families, friends and the community to obtain money to purchase this drug. The epidemic in Juneau seems to be on the rise and there is a desperate need for community intervention.

I work as a professional counselor focusing on youth with chemical dependencies here in Juneau. In the last four months, I have seen a dramatic increase in youth addicted to OxyContin. This addiction is a community problem for many reasons, including the criminal activities in which they become involved to support their habit, and more importantly, the health and safety concerns for our youth.

It is my opinion that the community needs to become more aware of this problem. We need to educate ourselves about the best ways to acknowledge and address opiate use and abuse among adolescents in our town. For starters, inpatient and medical detoxification services for the youth struggling with this addiction need to be made available. Medical treatment for adults already exists, but we are lacking in services for our youth. Because these adolescent brains are still developing, this epidemic becomes even more important to address immediately.

The death totals are increasing in our country, and to prevent any further devastation we must, as a community, do something to address this. I would hope that after reading this you understand the importance of this issue and demand that the community to something to help support opiate abusers and addicts. If something is not done soon, we will be dealing with the deaths of the youth that we all love and care about.

• Maya Raschel is a professional clinician living in Juneau.

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