DEA supervisor discusses area’s prescription drug problem


Staff writers Lorine Wright and Karen Billing recently met with Thomas Lenox, acting group supervisor for the tactical diversion squad of the Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego, to talk about prescription drug abuse and teens.

Have you seen an increase in prescription drug abuse by teenagers in the county?

Yes we’ve seen it. I’m assigned to a unit that works nothing but pharmaceuticals. What we’re hearing from people that we’ve arrested when we interview them is that most of them — if not all — started [using pharmaceuticals] when they were in high school; some as young as 14 or 15, in their freshman, sophomore year of high school. We are seeing an increase in enforcement, arrests and prosecution.

Do you know why they’re starting at 14?

They’re at parties it’s there, it’s available — curiosity. Someone will tell them it’s just like marijuana only 10 times better. At high school age, they’re exposed to marijuana, alcohol and this is one that’s available. Pills are in the home, everyone has access; it’s available in medicine cabinets to take. They’re so used to taking pills out of a prescription bottle that they don’t look at with the same seriousness as taking heroin. They don’t see it as serious.

Is it mostly OxyContin you’re seeing?

Most of what we’re seeing is a combination of OxyContin, Hydrocodone, Soma, some benzos (benzodiazepines: prescription drugs used for reducing stress and anxiety, promoting calmness, relaxation and sleep and as anti-depressants) like Xanax and Valium.

They get it initially from a medicine cabinet, but once that sort of wears out, where do they go to get it?

The older age group starts to connect with people from college, ages 18 to 22. They start supplying it to younger groups and it trickles down.

Do you find there’s a certain type of person who does it?

From the interviews we do it’s all across the board. It isn’t just one particular group that looks at it as a popular thing to do; it’s athletes, band members, student government, it’s everybody.

Are you seeing kids using heroin?

We’re seeing some because they move on from Oxy products — when they can’t get them they turn to heroin. We have seen an increase in that because it’s cheaper than the pills, with the same high.

Has heroin lost its negative stigma for them?

We’re finding that most of them smoke heroin, they are not injecting or shooting it up. They’re not at that level. And the OxyContin they smoke so they’re going from one drug that they smoke to another drug they smoke. We’re finding that they like the OxyContin better than heroin typically, but because of the withdrawals and the addiction they have to take what they can. Some are using suboxone, a drug used in treatment, to block cravings. They will actually buy those drugs on the street if they can’t get OxyContin, hydrocodone or heroin. They take one or two of those a day to get over the withdrawal until they get money to resupply.

What are symptoms that parents can look for?

Typical symptoms are gradual weight loss, sleeping more. With pharmaceuticals you don’t see a huge decline in grades, usually at the high school level they’re able to make it through without disrupting their grades. You can look for paraphernalia such as hollowed out pens, straws, tin foil that they use to smoke it. If they are still just using pills they’ll usually wipe the coating off. If they’re smoking it, there will be lighters or matches.

It’s important that parents don’t get complacent and think, “Well, they’re just experimenting with marijuana or alcohol.” Most of the addicts we’ve seen start there. Pharmaceuticals are addictive and the next thing you know, you find your child is fully addicted. You now have an 18, 19-year-old who is a heroin addict.

It’s unfortunate but there have been a number of overdose deaths from pharmaceuticals. The numbers are just way too high.

So the parents should sit down with their kids and talk?

The first thing to do is make sure they don’t have any substances in their house. Any unused pills need to be cleaned out of the medicine cabinet so they’re not accessible. It’s not necessarily that their kid may be using, but what if someone’s coming over that might use it, be it a niece, nephew, or friends. They’re on the lookout.

Then parents also need to talk to their kids about pharmaceuticals. They can’t just think it’s part of growing up because this isn’t growing up.

What does your organization do?

As an organization our focus is on enforcement. We’ve partnered up with a number of groups to be more active with promoting awareness in the community. My unit partnered with the Prescription Drug Task Force, a prevention coalition made up of treatment facilities, parent groups and law enforcement to try and come up with strategies for our mission to reduce the misuse and abuse of pharmaceutical drugs.

Was there always this group or was it formed because of the issue?

The DEA formed our in-house group. Nationwide, we’ve had the unit in place for the past four to five years. We’ve always had a responsibility over pharmaceutical drugs in a number of different ways. As the trends change, agencies change to focus on these trends and get more actively involved. It was cocaine in the ‘70s and ‘80s. As the trends change, law enforcement — not just DEA — but all of law enforcement has to change with those trends and deal with problems affecting the community.

The DEA started implementing these units nationally a year and a half ago and the Prescription Drug Task Force came online in the fall of 2008. And that was generated through the district attorney’s office, the sheriff’s office, they wanted to know how we are going to attack this problem. We’ve gotten a lot of things accomplished like installing prescription drug collection boxes at the sheriff’s departments. Little things like that start the ball rolling and start making progress.

Is there anything that you think people don’t know that they should know about this issue?

I think they need to realize this is a serious problem, and it’s not going to be fixed by any one method. Parents have to be educated, kids have to understand the severity and law enforcement needs to put a focus on prevention. The treatment centers saw this problem sooner than anyone; they saw people coming in for treatment. They know what the trends are — they’ve said to us, “We’ve seen this for several years; we’ve interviewed 20-year-olds who said they started four years ago.”

Are you arresting people for selling or are you arresting people for seeming under the influence?

It’s a combination of both. We’ve seen people make a purchase on the street and start using OxyContin or heroin behind the wheel of a car, so we need to step in. Our focus isn’t the user other than we want to get them into treatment. We want to arrest them and get them into treatment with their family’s support and not deal with the court issues. In some cases that works and in some cases that doesn’t work. If we come across the same user a couple of times we realize “OK, we have a problem here, he hasn’t gotten the message.” We’re very lucky that the District Attorney understands the problem we have and they support law enforcement with how to handle cases, get the user into treatment and get a harder case against the dealer.

Is it just young people who abuse prescription drugs?

The unfortunate thing about pharmaceuticals is some of them are in the older group, ages 30 to 50 — a lot of them will start taking it for an injury and build up a tolerance to it. And then they go doctor shopping.

Currently, there is a prescription-monitoring program coming online in the state of California, but doctors have to request to be on it. We encourage all doctors to do that and look to see if people have a history of going to other doctors.

We’ve heard that Highway 56 is referred to as the OxyContin Corridor, is that true?

It’s very popular in that area, let’s put it that way. It’s very popular in that area of the county, but it’s not solely limited to that area. I hate to stigmatize one area because we see it all over the county.