Poppin' pills

In a small town, a mother receives a call at work. She needs to come to the high school right away. They have her 15-year-old son Brett in the office. He was caught with a bag of pills. As she’s driving to the school, numerous thoughts run through her...


In a small town, a mother receives a call at work. She needs to come to the high school right away. They have her 15-year-old son Brett in the office. He was caught with a bag of pills. As she’s driving to the school, numerous thoughts run through her head. Is he doing prescription drugs? Where did he get them? How could I not notice a change in him? I pay attention. I know the risks and the signs. What am I going to do?

When she gets to the school, she’s led into the assistant principal’s office and learns the details of what has happened. A vehicle in the area had been broken into and a bottle of OxyContin had been stolen. One of the girls at the school had the painkilling opioids and thought she was going to get caught. So she asked Brett to hold them for her. He said yes and shoved them into his pocket. Another student witnessed it and alerted the office staff. When Brett was called into the office, at first he denied having them. When asked to show his pockets, he admitted to them. He wouldn’t say who they came from. Nobody, including his mother or school staff, believed he had taken any or was planning on using them. He also wasn’t involved in the burglary. The school gave him the mandatory three-day suspension. It could have been a lot worse.

When Brett and his mom left the school, his mom asked him why he would make a choice like that. Didn’t he realize the seriousness of prescription drugs? They sat in silence for a while in the car. Then she asked, “If she would have handed you a Baggie of cocaine, what would you have done?” His response was quick and definite, “I would have said no way!”

The problem

Prescription drugs have become the second most abused drug in the United States according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. In addition, they present “a unique challenge because of the need to balance prevention, education, and enforcement, with the need for legitimate access to controlled substance prescription drugs.” The 2008 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Survey on Drug Use and Health found approximately 52 million Americans aged 12 and older reported non-medical use of any psychotherapeutic (prescription-type pain reliever, tranquilizer, stimulant or sedative) at some point in their lifetime. This represents 20.8 percent of the population. The survey also found 2.5 million people aged 12 or older used a psychotherapeutic non-medically for the first time within the last year. That’s 7,000 initiates per day.

As prescription drug abuse increases, so does the need for treatment and unfortunately the fatality rate. According to SAMHSA, 29 percent of teens in treatment are there for dependence on prescription drugs. Across all age groups, between 1995 and 2005, treatment admissions for prescription drug dependence grew more than 300 percent. Between 1999 and 2006, hospital admissions for prescription drug overdoses increase 65 percent. Poisoning has become the second leading cause of unintentional-injury death and has been on the rise for the last 15 years now surpassing automobile crashes as the leading cause of unintentional-injury death for people 35 to 54 years of age.

Due to the complexity of abuse of a legal substance, law enforcement and health care professionals have to work together. Many prescription drugs are obtained legally. Once at home, numerous people, including teens and their friends, have access to the lethal drugs, which are just sitting in the medicine cabinet or on the night stand. More unscrupulous are those who procure prescriptions from a variety of unsuspecting doctors, known as doctor shopping. These people then sell the drugs to others. Another problem is when prescription dispensaries, known as pill mills, enter the picture and allow anyone to purchase prescription drugs for a price. All of these factors combine requiring communities, healthcare professionals and criminal justice personnel to work together to combat the issue. The creation of educational components within law enforcement, such as the Broward Sheriff’s Office’s (BSO’s) Operation Medicine Cabinet, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s “Take Back” programs, Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs and prescription drug task forces have combined to help communities battle this fatal problem.

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