Rampant teen prescription drug abuse ‘frightening’

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.

“Mexico is a huge problem for us,” Ross said, but noted that stepped-up awareness has led to about 30 arrests a week for prescription drug-related incidents.

Ross showed a photo of a teen girl who has been arrested numerous times at the border — young, blonde, wearing a pink sweat shirt and white shorts, looking like the average San Diego teen. On her most recent arrest she had traded five iPods for heroin and OxyContin.

Ross said he’s heard parents have given up on preventing their kids from using marijuana or drinking because they “aren’t that bad.” But, he said, it’s important to stay strict.

“If you give up on marijuana, that means you’re used to seeing your kid high,” Ross said. “Fight the battle, don’t give up with alcohol or marijuana — don’t let kids be under the influence in your presence.”

“I don’t think parents talk enough about drugs,” said Sam, a Poway teen in another video Ross showed. “I think it’s important for parents to follow through with punishment. I went from marijuana to OxyContin at 15 years old. It’s hard for a parent to believe that their kid has a drug problem.”

The forum was sponsored by the San Dieguito Union High School District. For more information, contact Tiffany Findell at the READI (Recovery Education Alcohol Drug Instruction) program at (760) 753-1121, ext. 5304, or

Warning signs your teen may be using

There are several warning signs parents can be on the watch for with their children.

Looking for drug paraphernalia is a first step. “Tin foil is huge,” San Diego Sheriff Deputy Dave Ross said.

Tin foil that has been used to smoke Oxy will have black streaks on it and Ross said some teens are even carrying foil in their purses or backpacks. Parents can also watch for hollowed out pens, which teens use to smoke the drug.

Effects of the drug include watery, sunken eyes, extreme loss of appetite or weight, constipation, drowsiness and excessive scratching.

Other warning signs include:

  • Withdrawing from the family or a loss of interest in things that were once important. Ross said if you notice your child has a loss of motivation or is always tired, ask yourself whether their activities warrant their behavior.
  • Drop in academic/work performance.
  • Frequently finds ways to get away. Verify that they are going where they say, check their odometer, their text messages and Facebook pages. One parent said the easiest time to check text messages is when kids are in the shower.
  • Money issues. “Don’t just give your kids money without knowing what they’re doing with it,” Ross said.