Center addresses prescription drug abuse

Posted: Wednesday, May 14, 2008

High school senior Katie Doyle said she knows about 20 classmates who have gone to rehab for prescription drug abuse in the past few years.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

She said she never really heard about prescription drug abuse her freshman and sophomore years, but now it's a subject frequently discussed at school.

And the demand for opioid-based drugs such as OxyContin by Juneau teens has become so high, Doyle said, that one 80 mg pill can fetch $200.

"There's so many people that fiend for them that they are willing to pay that much," Doyle said.

Doyle spends part of her school week working at the Teen Health Center, which is a consortium of different agencies that operates in the Juneau School District.

Alarmed at what Doyle and other students were telling them, and themselves noticing a rise in prescription drug abuse by students, staff at the center teamed up with local medical professional earlier this year to look at ways to address the problem.

The center's coordinator, Mary Tonsmeire, said one of the first things she and other medical professionals did was to gather data to see if the anecdotal information they were hearing was showing a trend.

Tonsmeire said a survey of medical professionals and a look at emergency records over the past several years, which show a sharp increase in opiate-related cases in the past two years, supports the idea that prescription drug abuse among teens is on the rise.

The next step was to talk to doctors and pharmacists about ways to keep better track of where teens are acquiring prescription drugs for recreational use. Tonsmeire said she's asked pharmacists around town to include a reminder to those prescribed opioid-based drugs to dispose of them properly and keep them out of the hands of children.

Now, Tonsmeire said, the public needs to know about the problem and act to curb it.

"People need to lock up their drugs," Tonsmeire said, adding that it's not just parents with teenage children who are vulnerable to having their prescription drugs stolen, but anyone with a medicine cabinet that's easily accessible.

One of the biggest misconceptions the general public, including teenagers, have about prescription drugs is that they are safer to consume than other drugs, said Tonsmeire and other medical professionals.

"It's coming from a doctor, how could it be that dangerous?" said Dr. Paul Topol, director of the mental health unit at Bartlett Regional Hospital, characterizing attitudes toward prescription drugs.

Tonsmeire said she's working with the Juneau School District to specifically address prescription drug abuse in its official health curriculum.

"There's a lot of things about not using drugs, but there's nothing specific about not using prescription drugs," Tonsmeire said. "And that has to change."

Bob Swanson, a drug-abuse counselor at the Teen Health Center, said he incorporated prescription drug abuse into his regular talks to health classes.

He said he also meets with parent groups to discuss the growing problem. He said parents are often unaware of signs their teens are abusing prescription drugs. He said he talked to a mother who found burnt tin foil and empty cases from ballpoint pens, items used to smoke prescription drugs, but didn't recognize they were clear indicators of drug abuse.

Swanson recommends that parents keep tabs on how their children are spending their money. Given the price of some ill-gotten prescription drugs, a frequent user could burn through a lot of money quickly, Swanson said.

"Follow the money," Swanson said.

The price of ignoring signs of prescription drug abuse can be high, according to Juneau-Douglas High School counselor Barbara Conant. She said she's seen a number of families "torn up" about changes in their teenager's behavior, such as stealing and lying, that accompany addiction.

"They don't trust their child anymore," she said.

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or e-mail

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