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Friends of NIDA Coalition Holds Briefing on Prescription Drug Abuse

The nonmedical use of prescription pain-killers is on the rise, including a significant increase in the report of the nonmedical use of OxyContin and Vicodin among 12th grade high school students over the period of 2002-2005.

By Clare Porac

"I don't know how this happened to me. I was a good student in high school and a star hockey player". With these words, 20-year old Nick started his tragic and often tearful description of his four-year struggle with addictions to the prescription pain-killer, OxyContin, and heroin. Nick was one of three speakers at a briefing on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Friends of NIDA (National Institute of Drug Abuse) coalition entitled "Prescription Drug Abuse - An Emerging Public Health Threat". The February 23, 2006 briefing was held in conjunction with the Congressional Caucus on Addiction, Treatment and Recovery and included two additional presentations by Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA Director, and Dr. Carol Boyd, Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. This briefing was the fifth in a series of educational briefings organized by the APA science policy staff on behalf of the Friends of NIDA coalition. The briefing focused on detailing the prevalence and characteristics of the nonmedical use of prescription drugs among adolescents and young adults.

Dr. Volkow began the session with an overview of the problem. The nonmedical use of prescription pain-killers is on the rise, including a significant increase in the report of the nonmedical use of OxyContin and Vicodin among 12th grade high school students over the period of 2002-2005. A surprising statistic indicated that in 2005 the number of adolescents reporting a first time drug use involving a pain-killer surpassed the prevalence of the previous first drug of choice, marijuana. Although pain-killers seem to top the list of abused prescription drugs, adolescents and young adults also report the nonmedical use of stimulants, such as Ritalin used to treat ADHD, and tranquilizers. Dr. Volkow addressed some possible reasons why the nonmedical use of prescription drugs is rising at an alarming rate in these age groups. Increased media attention to the issue and the availability of drug purchase through internet sources that do not require a prescription to purchase a drug were mentioned as possible contributors to the growing problem.

The second speaker, Dr. Boyd, described her NIDA-sponsored research on the nonmedical use of prescription drugs in over 5000 adolescents and young adults from areas in and around Detroit, Michigan. She found that high school students who abuse prescription medications were more likely to use other illegal as well as legal drugs, such as alcohol. Furthermore, her results indicated that internet sources were not used to buy prescription drugs by participants in her study. Prescription stimulant drugs, such as Ritalin, were most frequently obtained from friends while prescription pain-killers were frequently obtained from parents. Dr. Boyd's research also explored the motivations that prompted the nonmedical use of prescription drugs. Pain-killers were most frequently used to "get high" as well as to relieve pain. Stimulants, on the other hand, were most frequently used to improve concentration, study habits and alertness. Medical users of prescription drugs, both friends and family members, divert their drugs to others. In the case of high school students, who have prescriptions for drugs for medical reasons, this diversion might involve a sale or a trade for another drug.

Nick's final presentation was a graphic and heart-wrenching saga of his years as an addicted teenager. Nick described the feelings of elation and superiority that he felt when taking OxyContin as well as the growing awareness that his life was in danger if his drug use persisted unchecked. After several years of repeated failures in detox treatment centers and a near death experience caused by an overdose, Nick has been successfully treated by a combination of drug therapy using buprenorphine, which relieves him of his drug craving, and behavioral management techniques. The development of buprenorphine to assist in the treatment of drug addiction is one of NIDA's drug development success stories.

All the speakers stressed that prescription medications are readily available in most high schools and on the streets, either free or for a price, and that the number of emergency room visits related to the abuse of pain-killers is increasing at a rapid rate in recent years. More education is needed to inform parents and adolescents about the dangers of sharing prescription medications with others so that these medications can be used safely and legally for their intended purposes. Prescription medications need to be stored in secure places and discarded when no longer required. Also, physicians and nurses must talk to their adolescent patients about their prescription drug use and the dangers of diverting drugs to others for nonmedical reasons.