Many experts agree that today’s young people, including adolescents, are turning away from illegal street drugs in favour of more readily available prescription drugs.
The most commonly used prescription drugs fall into three classes:
Examples: oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and meperidine (Demerol) Medical uses: Opioids are used to treat pain or relieve coughs or diarrhea. How they work: Opioids attach to opioid receptors in the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord), preventing the brain from receiving pain messages.
Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants
Examples: pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal), diazepam (Valium), and alprazolam (Xanax) Medical uses: CNS depressants are used to treat anxiety, tension, panic attacks, and sleep disorders. How they work: CNS depressants slow down brain activity by increasing the activity of a neurotransmitter called GABA. The result is a drowsy or calming effect.
Examples: methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall) Medical uses: Stimulants can be used to treat narcolepsy and ADHD. How they work: Stimulants increase brain activity, resulting in greater alertness, attention, and energy.
The Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS), the longest ongoing survey of adolescent drug use in Canada, in 2007, looked for the first time at prescription opioid abuse among teens. The study, conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, found that 21 percent of Ontario students in grades 7 to 12 report using prescription opioid pain relievers such as TYLENOL®No. 3 and Percocet® for non-medical purposes; and almost 72 percent report obtaining the drugs from home. In addition, among all drugs asked about, OxyContin® was the only drug to show a significant, but small, increase in non-medical use since the last survey (2 percent of students reported using it in 2007, representing about 18,100 students, versus 1 percent in 2005).
Also disconcerting is the possible link between opioid abuse and abuse of other drugs. A study of U.S. elementary and high school students published in Pediatrics in 2006 found evidence that the non-medical use of prescription medications, particularly opioids, may be associated with an increase in general substance abuse problems.
Easy access is a big issue. “North America has an enormous abundance of psychoactive drugs coming through the medical system,” says Benedikt Fischer, director of the Illicit Drugs, Public Health and Policy Unit at the Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia. “We prescribe more prescription opioids that any other country or region in the world,” he says, pointing out that Canada is the world’s top per capita consumer of a number of opioids.
Part of the lure and danger of youth abuse of prescription drugs is the false belief that because they are legal and prescription-based, they are safe.
In fact, abuse of prescription drugs can and does lead to serious addiction and subsequent withdrawal problems. There is also danger that drugs will be combined with other substances to create a deadly mix.
What to look for
You may find it hard to really know if your loved one has a drug problem. However, if you suspect a drug problem, look for marked changes in behavior, appearance and health. Is he/she suddenly having trouble in school or at work? Does he/she seem more and more isolated, or have a new group of friends? Is he/she spending a lot of time sleeping or, alternatively, seems keyed up and unable to sleep? Have you noticed that money or objects that could be sold for drugs seem to be disappearing? Do prescription drugs seem to be used up too quickly? If you have any questions, please call Turning Point for assistance.