A Loaded Weapon: Concern Over Prescription Pill Abuse in Teens

Authorities worry about the popularity of prescription medications among teenagers and the dangerous results of overuse.

April Rovero remembers her reaction well. It was a cool night last December and she had just learned her 21-year-old son was dead.

"It was absolute shock, absolute horror to the core," she recalls. "You just can't believe your son is gone. You're in the Twilight Zone. Your mind goes numb."

Joey Rovero was not a drug addict. The California High School graduate wasn't even considered a heavy drinker. He simply took the wrong mixture of prescription pills on the wrong night.

"My son did not want to die. He just didn't know how powerful these drugs are," said Rovero. "Joey could be anybody's kid and he should still be alive."

Joey Rovero's story is an alarm bell for law enforcement officers and drug abuse counselors in the San Ramon Valley and across the country.

A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse concludes use of alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy, LSD and methamphetamines is down nationwide. However, the misuse of prescription drugs is steadily increasing, especially painkillers such as oxycontin and hydrocodone.

Locally, the numbers don't necessarily indicate a widespread problem. In Danville, arrests for juvenile drug possession, sales and transportation have been down for the past two years. There were 24 arrests in 2008, 10 last year and eight so far this year. Those numbers, however, have done little to alleviate concerns among the experts.

At a community forum last month at Iron Horse Middle School in San Ramon, Dr. S. Alex Stalcup said prescription pill use by teenagers in the San Ramon Valley is as prevalent as any place in the country.

"I'm really very worried about what I see here," said Stalcup. "Addiction to these drugs is life-altering. It's a game changer."

The Drug Enforcement Agency's website says oxycontin is a painkiller similar to morphine and is used for its euphoric effects. More than 50 million prescriptions were issued in the United States in 2008.

Hydrocodone is described as a cough suppressant that is more effective than codeine. It's the most commonly prescribed opiate in the country, with 138 million prescriptions in 2008. There are hundreds of products that include hydrocodone, including Vicodin.

For teenagers, the most common methods for getting these drugs are false prescriptions, theft and the Internet.

Danville Police Sgt. Allan Shields said prescription pills are becoming popular for a number of reasons. First, they are easy to find. Many households have them in the medicine cabinet.

The pills also don't seem dangerous to many young people, he said, because they take prescription medications for everything from ear infections to strep throat.

Shields said users crush the pills, then snort them, smoke them or inject them. These methods eliminate the pills' slow-release effect and lead to a quick high.

But once you start using prescription pills, you build up a tolerance and must ingest increasing amounts to achieve the euphoria.

"Now the drug controls you," said Stalcup. "It tells you when to use it and how much."

Pills can also be lethal to someone not used to their strength. That was the case for Joey Rovero. The popular teen played on Cal High's football team before graduating in 2006. He enrolled at Arizona State University that fall.

He joined a fraternity as a freshman. There was a significant amount of drinking on campus and Rovero's parents spoke to him about it. He admitted to occasionally using pills to stay awake while studying. But his parents said they weren't overly alarmed.

That changed last fall during his senior year when he moved into an apartment with two new roommates.

"Joey started hanging out with more students who were using these drugs," said his mother, April Rovero. "He became more exposed to them."

In early December, Joey went with two young men to Los Angeles to visit a "dirty doctor" to buy prescription medications. Rovero said the doctor gave her son 90 tablets of the painkiller Percocet, 90 doses of the muscle relaxant Soma and 30 tablets of the anti-anxiety medication Xanex.

"This was a critical move by Joey," she said. "His moral compass just went out the window."

Nine days later, Rovero took a few of the Xanex and Percocet along with alcohol. Nothing in big doses but lethal enough for a person without tolerance to the drugs. When Joey fell asleep the next afternoon, the drug mixture shut down his central nervous system and he stopped breathing.

"One pill can kill," said Rovero. "That night, Joey was one pill and one drink away from life or death."

It's an ending that could have happened to Melissa, a former California High School student who abused drugs for three years before finally straightening out her life in January.

As a freshman, Melissa, who uses only her first name when speaking publicly, fell out of her friends' circle and began hanging out with drug users.

She started smoking marijuana on weekends. By her sophomore year, she smoked pot almost daily, including at lunch and after school. During junior year, she continued to use marijuana daily and started drinking.

In January 2009, Melissa was suspended from Cal High, caught with marijuana and paraphernalia.  She ran away from home in May 2009 and tried Vicodin and other prescription pills. In January 2010 she entered a rehab program and is now in independent study and attending classes at Diablo Valley College. She will graduate from high school next month.

Melissa estimates 60 to 80 percent of San Ramon Valley teens use drugs or alcohol at least occasionally and some use with their parents.

She says prescription pill use is on the rise, although it hasn't reached epidemic proportions yet.

"It's a bigger problem than people think it is," she said. "I've seen it more and more in the past four years."

Melissa says teens rarely begin their drug abuse with prescription pills, starting with alcohol or marijuana.

Melissa now speaks to eighth graders through the Youth to Youth program sponsored by Community Against Substance Abuse.

"I like talking to middle school students because I can tell them how things can end up," she said. "I never thought I would become an addict."

Her main advice is to be selective about the people they hang out with.

"Be careful who your friends are. Choose people who have the same morals and values as you," she said. "If your friends use, you will too."

That's a message repeated often by people who work for the group.

Kim Gallagher, a Youth to Youth program director, says the San Ramon Valley is somewhere in the middle nationwide and statewide when it comes to drug use. However, even if only 40 percent of high school students use drugs, that's still about 500 teens. That may gives youngsters a skewed view of the impact, especially when drugs and alcohol are available at many high school party.

The group focuses its message on middle school students because that's the age when most young people are introduced to substances.

"We try to get to them and convince them that not everybody is doing drugs and alcohol," said Gallagher. "The older they get, the harder it is for them to resist."

Counselors also urge teens to have a plan before a party.

"If you walk in thinking you aren't going to use drugs, it's much easier," she said.

They talk to parents, who many times enable their children to use drugs. Some aren't aware of the warning signs. Others lie for their kids. Some help them out. Gallagher urges parents to talk with their children, even if they think they won't listen. She says parents are still the number one influence.

"I don't think we realize how much our kids look to us for guidance," Gallagher said.

April Rovero echoes those sentiments. She tells parents to keep close tabs on their children, even when they go away to college, to educate themselves and their kids about the dangers of drugs. If they have prescription drugs in the medicine cabinet, lock them up.

She said: "Treat those pills as if they are a loaded weapon."


Additional Resources:

National Institure on Drug Abuse (NIDA) - Prescription Medications 

National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators (NADDI)

TeensHealth - Prescription Drug Abuse

Time To Talk — A guide on how to talk to your kids about drug use.

Dispose My Meds—A guide to finding drug disposal programs.

Discovery Counseling Center—non-profit organization in Danville that provides an adolescent alcohol and drug assessment program.


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