Oxycodone is a strong narcotic prescribed to relieve moderate to severe pain. But in the past 10 years, youth have been abusing it for recreational purposes. Considered a “downer,” oxycodone slows reactions and brain function, increases tolerance to pain, and causes sedation.
Megan and Jordan, who requested that their full names not be used, attend a rural high school west of Indianapolis. Both have seen kids abusing prescription drugs such as oxycodone, though they have not used them. “Everybody has problems that they’re dealing with. Some choose to embrace that problem and try to fix it, and some just choose to ignore it and take drugs,” explained Megan, 15.
Prescription drug use has exploded recently, especially among teens. According to a recent study by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, prescription drugs were the second most abused drugs by 12- to 17-year-olds, ahead of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. First is marijuana.
Megan and Jordan say students can easily find prescription drugs and marijuana, and they have seen kids taking pills at school. “Some kids will go into the bathroom and do drugs and take pills and stuff,” Megan said.
“They’re not that hard to find,” added Jordan, 15.
Many factors account for the rise in prescription drug use. Accessibility is No. 1.
According to Eric Wright, Division Director for Health Policy and Management at the Department of Public Health at IU School of Medicine, “Prescription drugs are perhaps a little bit easier to get a hold of since they are technically legal substances, relative to heroin, cocaine and marijuana. You don’t have to go to as great lengths to find them.”
Other factors contribute to the drugs’ popularity. For one, they are portable and can often be found in parents’ medicine cabinets. Many kids also perceive them as safer, since they are professionally manufactured and endorsed by doctors.
They also provide more of a kick, says Jesse, 18, a recovering drug abuser. “I got bored of just smoking marijuana, so I just started popping things that were prescribed.”
Jesse was interviewed at Hope Academy, a public charter high school founded by Fairbanks, a not-for-profit alcohol and drug treatment center in Indianapolis. He and Lora, 19, and Kayla, 18, agreed to discuss their drug histories, which included abuse of the prescription medications Oxycontin, Vicodin, Lortab, codeine, Xanax and Klonopin. They asked that their last names not be used to protect their privacy.
Prescription drug abuse in Indiana exceeds the national average, particularly opiates (pain relievers), Wright said. Oxycodone is the most widely abused prescription drug in Indiana, followed closely by hydrocodone, or Vicodin.
While teens often get drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinets, they also get them from other students who are prescribed medication but then sell or give their pills to friends and acquaintances.
That’s what happened to Kayla. “I can remember being in like intermediate school, like fifth or sixth grade, and somebody giving me Oxycontin at school and I didn’t even know what it was.”
That didn’t stop her from taking it. “I was probably like 12 or 13, I’m pretty sure I was drunk,” she said. “It was like weed and alcohol weren’t enough and I just wanted to try something new.”
Jesse started abusing Vicodin at age 16 when a doctor wrote him a prescription. Lora was also 16 when she got Fentanyl, a narcotic, from her dealer boyfriend.
All liked the feeling of “oblivion” that these drugs gave them — “kind of light-headed, like speedy, like you have a lot of energy, happy, like you love everybody,” said Kayla.
But the fun didn’t last. The feelings of euphoria quickly became overwhelmed by feelings of stress and paranoia as the teens became obsessed with finding drugs.
The high also deteriorated. “I got sick all the time,” said Kayla. “I would just be lying there, messed up. Things would happen around me, like fighting, stealing, and cops would show up, and I couldn’t move.”
“The worst part is not knowing what happened,” agreed Lora. “The absolute worst is when you wake up in jail and you’re like on pills and you have no clue why you’re there or what happened.”
None of this is news to Wright. “Once someone gets hooked on drugs, they can affect your ability to function at school and affect your relationships with your friends and family, so they can actually cause a downward spiral in one’s life.”
Lora, Kayla and Jesse each experienced hitting bottom.
"For me, like on the outside basically I had everything together ’cause I had like a full-time job and straight A’s and I paid my mom’s bills. But it was like on the inside, I got to the point where I wasn’t suicidal, but I would pray that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. And when I woke up, I’d be like ‘Crap, here’s another day.’ So it was just like a lot of misery and helplessness,” said Lora.
They all sought help at Fairbanks, Jesse after his family joined in an intervention to get him to stop abusing.
“My parents cried for me for the first time in like 15 years, and I realized that it really wasn’t worth it and I should probably try and make something out of myself,” he said.
The public needs to be educated about prescription drug abuse, Wright said. “The first step is educating people about prescription drugs. The second step is trying to help doctors do a better job of monitoring what prescriptions they’re writing and what the patients are doing with the prescriptions.”
He says Indiana has instituted a new program called Inspect, which monitors all prescriptions written in the state and compiles the information in a computer database. State officials also are asking doctors to re-think prescribing certain drugs.
All of the teens agree that parents need to keep a better watch on their medicine cabinets and give their kids guidance in saying ‘no’ to drugs. “Parents enable kids a lot, like they just look the other way or brush it off,” Kayla said.
Megan and Jordan are frustrated that young abusers are rarely caught or confronted. Says Megan: “They should get in trouble. If a lot of people aren’t getting punished for abusing drugs, then more and more people will start doing them, and it’ll get out of control.”
The dangers are clear. “I think every drug is a gateway drug ’cause you’re going to get bored with it sooner or later,” Jesse said.
Contributing to this story are assistant editor Priya Mirmira, 14, and reporters Izabella Robinson, 13, and Sameer Kumar, 13.