Parents gathered at Torrey Pines High School Feb. 4 to hear experts talk about the growing use of prescription drugs by teenagers.
At the front of the lecture hall stood one of their own, mother Virginia Wait, her voice choked with emotion as she told the story of her son, James, who died at age 22 after freebasing the prescription drug OxyContin. He died on Sept. 2, 2007, found on the floor of a Pacific Beach apartment 3 1/2 months shy of graduating from San Diego State University.
"Our son, so full of life, gone," Wait said. "The feeling is too hard to explain to anybody."
It wasn't until after James died that she discovered that her Vicodin and Demerol bottles in her medicine cabinet were empty, as well as texts from a drug dealer on his cell phone.
"Part of me died that day," Wait said. "This kind of trag-edy can happen to anyone."
"This is real," said Tom Lenox, a San Diego Drug Enforcement Agency special agent, to a silent room of more than 50 parents. "I don't know how much realer we can make it."
Federal, state and local law enforcement officers are working hard against the misconception that because prescription medications come from doctors, they are safer than street drugs.
Prescription drugs have become the second most abused drug behind marijuana in juveniles ages 12-17.
"This is the first time in my 22-year career that I'm very scared," San Diego Sheriff Deputy Dave Ross said.
Ross said in San Diego, OxyContin, a powerful pain medication often prescribed to cancer patients, is quickly becoming the drug of choice among teens. The hot spots for the drug are at Torrey Pines, Poway and Rancho Bernardo high schools.
"Highway 56 is the OxyContin corridor," Ross said.
Ross showed a video interview of a 19-year-old named Josh, his face blurred to prevent recognition. The Torrey Pines graduate was arrested for nine residential burglaries to help support his habit.
Josh said that OxyContin is "pretty much everywhere," but mostly in wealthy communities such as La Jolla, Solana Beach and Del Mar. The youngest person he knew that used the drug was 14 years old.
He said the kids who use Oxy do well in school, are popular; some are athletes, others are involved in student government.
OxyContin is a deadly drug, Ross said, and while states such as West Virginia and Florida have been dealing with growing death rates for years, California is catching up. From 2004-06, there were 17 deaths related to Oxy in San Diego. From 2008-09, there were 53.
One of those deaths was Josh, the young man in the video. His body was found in Tijuana in October 2009.
As the DEA's (Drug Enforcement Agency) OxyContin Task Force has educated law enforcement officers, there has been significant progress in battling the problem, especially at the Mexican border, where Ross said they are making more arrests.
Ross said many teens are driving down to the border, crossing over for five minutes to get their drugs and then returning. Teens are selling electronics or other items to pay for the drugs.