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November 26, 2014

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Prescription drug crisis dribbles into public schools

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Heather Cory

Arlene Hummel, the coordinator for the Clark County School District’s Safe and Drug Free Program, holds books and pamphlets used to target drug abuse among teens at the CCSD Curriculum & Development Center earlier this month. With the rise of prescription drug abuse among teens, the Safe and Drug Free Program helps provide counseling to students and their parents and aids for the teachers in the classrooms.

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Prescription drugs confiscated by the Clark County Coroner's Office are displayed. School police are warning that more students are abusing prescription drugs.

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Prescription drug abuse could be the next illicit drug menace for teens in the Las Vegas Valley, Clark County School District Police say.

Last year, school police started seeing more students carrying pain killers for which they didn't have a prescription, department spokesman Lt. Ken Young said.

There have been five arrests so far this school year, he said. Although still a small percentage of the approximately 400 drug and alcohol-possession cases school police handle each year, the national attention prescription drug abuse has garnered has the district paying more attention to the problem.

And the problem is a nationwide one. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the agency responsible for commercials comparing a drug-addled brain to a frying egg in the 1990s, now airs a message warning that teens don't need the corner drug dealer anymore. They are raiding their parents' medicine cabinets for doctor-prescribed drugs.

That's been the case so far in local schools, Young said.

"Most cases we've seen they've gotten them from home where they maybe take a pill here and a few days later take another one out of the bottle and mom and dad probably don't notice. The last thing they think is their son or daughter would take their prescription," he said. "In some cases, they're sharing with other kids."

What hasn't changed is the potential outcome of drug intoxication. Sixty people ages 13-20 died from overdoses in which prescription drugs were involved in Clark County between 2003-2007, according to the County Coroner's Office. Of those, the coroner classified seven as suicides. The rest were accidental overdoses.

A report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that nearly half of 17-year-olds surveyed said they had at least one friend who abused prescription drugs.

The study surveyed 1,002 youths ages 12 to 17 and more than 300 of their parents and found that more than a third of the prescription drugs illegally obtained by teens came from their homes.

Dr. Mel Pohl, medical director of the Las Vegas Recovery Center, 3371 N. Buffalo Drive, said marijuana remains the drug of choice for recreational use among teens, but opiates and opioids are becoming more prevalent.

"These are readily accessible drugs, which is unfortunate, and the main source of these drugs is a parents' medicine cabinet," Pohl said. "There's almost an illusion that they're safe because they're legal. They're not safe. People are overdosing on these drugs on a daily basis, especially when they're mixed with other drugs, and that's pretty much the standard way to use these drugs for kids."

Most of the Recovery Center's late teen-aged patients have been using opioids for years, Pohl said.

"It indicates to me that there's a lot of drug use going on, and this is really the scourge of the future," he said. "They're rampant in schools. I think they're underestimating it."

One of Pohl's patients, an 18-year-old who asked not to be named for privacy reasons, attended a public and a private high school in the west valley.

As a 15-year-old sophomore, an upperclassman friend introduced him to cocaine. He tired of the up and down effects and moved on to the prescription painkiller OxyContin for more than a year. When that became too expensive, he switched to heroin.

Like his friends, the 18-year-old came from a typical middle class family, worked an after school job, had a car and the freedom and money to indulge in recreational drug use.

"For me and most of my friends, we maintained good grades and a good front because that was our excuse to use drugs," he said. "I knew that if I slacked off in school, then I'd have my parents on (me). I did well in school and I did well to try to cover everything so I could do drugs. I was motivated for drugs."

The drugs were not difficult to find, the teen said.

"Once you start doing it, eventually it's not tough to find it," he said.

Generally, he and his friends bought their drugs from 20-something friends who were prescribed pain killers from doctors for imaginary ailments. When one doctor said no, they'd shop around for a physician who would write a bottomless prescription, he said.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy reports 2,500 kids ages 12 to 17 try a painkiller for the first time each day. And more than 2.1 million teens reported abusing prescription drugs in a 2006 survey.

It's difficult to place a hard number or percentage on the number of local students using prescription drugs, said Arlene Hummel, coordinator for the district's Safe and Drug Free School Program.

But there were about 1,000 students who attended the program in the last school year, she said. Students caught in possession or under the influence of drugs must attend a six-hour counseling session with their parents.

The best thing parents can do to address drug use is openly communicate with their children and be aware of their own behavior when using prescriptions, Hummel said.

"We have to be careful what we're modeling to our children because if they see their parents using, they certainly are going to feel that it's OK for themselves to use if they're having a bad day," she said.

Jeff Pope can be reached at 990-2688 or [email protected].

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