It's an epidemic that's getting kids hooked and the consequences could be lethal. The number of teens using and abusing prescription drugs has exploded. They are passing out pills at parties and sharing with friends. Experts say the cocktail of drugs and alcohol is a deadly game.
Two-thirds of teens who abuse prescription drugs get them from friends or family. It usually starts with one pill, swiped from the family medicine cabinet, turning parents into drug dealers and most don't even know it.
"I didn't sleep. I barely ate. I just used around the clock," 20-year old Ally told FOX 5.
The Fairfax County woman, who is only being identified by her first name to protect her privacy, became an addict at 16 years old. She rattled off a variety of pills she has used: roxiecodone (roxies), benzodiazepine (benzos), xanax (xanies), vicodin, methadone and opana.
She got her first high by stealing the meds from her grandmother. She would swap pills with friends at so called "pharm parties" where the pharmaceuticals were as common as alcohol.
"It's kind of like BYOB, except BYOP, bring your own prescriptions," Ally described.
Studies show one in six kids have used prescription drugs to get high and more people die from prescription drug overdoses than heroin or cocaine. Experts say illegal prescription drugs are being bought, sold and traded in every school, public or private, and in every neighborhood.
"I could get it easily in school," said Ally. "By the time I reached college, it's everywhere."
Four years after taking her first pill, she just completed her third stint in drug rehab through a program with Phoenix House. The organization treats thousands of addicts with programs in 11 states, including Maryland and Virginia.
Debby Taylor, the Senior Vice President and Regional Director for the Mid-Atlantic, says prescription drugs have "blown" onto the adolescent scene in the past five years. It's not uncommon to have a 15-year-old addicted to narcotics in treatment. She says the teens in their program often describe weekend benders, chasing prescription pills with a fifth of alcohol.
"It is Russian roulette," she said.
40 years ago when she began with Phoenix House as a psychiatric nurse, Taylor thought it would take just a few years to get a handle on the drug abuse problem. Today, she finds it alarming that some believe drug use is a rite of passage, and right now, prescription drugs seem to be the teen drug of choice.
"Parents would never think that their child would be doing that," Taylor said. "They combine it with other drugs, which becomes a lethal cocktail."
Most people who get hooked start abusing prescription meds in their teens. Surveys show they are also the most abused drug among 12 to 13 year olds. When those same kids end up in rehab, many parents are just trying to keep them from dying.
"I will have moms constantly tell me, 'If I can get my child through high school, I will consider myself a good parent,'" she said.
Ally, like most teens, never thought she would be an addict.
"It's a vicious cycle that starts and it starts with just that one," she said.
"No one wakes up and says, 'I want to become a drug addict. I want to do all these things. I want to hurt the ones I love.' But it happens," she said of her own experience.
Unlike street drugs, there's a misperception prescription drugs are somehow safer.
"Parents pretty much think it's okay if their kids abuse medicine. At least they're not on the street corner getting it from some bad guy. It's medicine. How bad can it be?" said Steve Pasierb, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Partnership at Drugfree.org.
In September, the organization launched The Medicine Abuse Project. It's an ambitious campaign to prevent half a million teens from abusing medicine over the next five years.
"There's a huge social exchange of medicines among kids," said Pasierb. "If I have the ADHD drugs and you have the pain meds, we'll swap a few because I want them for one reason, you want them for another. There's this trade-off and that's what's going on at parties."
According to The Medicine Abuse Project, about 2,500 kids begin to abuse medicine every day. It's an epidemic that has fueled an illegal prescription drug trade.
Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, calls it his biggest drug enforcement challenge.
"There's a large quantity of pills on the street that are sold just like illegal drugs are sold, a dollar or two dollars per pills," he said.
Law enforcement across the region are increasingly busting doctors and clinics suspected of doling out thousands of illegal prescriptions and pills, which are then resold on the streets. In the past few years, federal prosecutors in Maryland convicted two drug dealers who sold the fatal dose of methadone that killed a teenager. The crime can lead to a mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison.
"In some of these cases, these are not people you think of as kingpin dealers," Rosenstein said. "They're dealing a few pills at a time to high school students for instance."
Maryland's U.S. attorney believes strong prescription drug monitoring programs could help turn the tide on prescription drug abuse. These programs track the prescription and distribution of controlled substances to identify potential abusers. Currently, Virginia already does this, while Maryland will later this year, and the District has no monitoring program at all.
Rosenstein says laws that tracked and limited purchases of cold medicines used to produce methamphetamines helped to cut down on meth labs and abuse.
For Ally, the final straw was a five-day suicidal binge of prescription drugs and alcohol that led to a seizure. She realized then she didn't want to die, but didn't know any other way to live either.
"I do know people that have overdosed and it's really tragic," she said.
She wasn't the type of kid people would suspect of abusing. She graduated high school with a 4.0 grade point average. But her life eventually spiraled out of control.
"You think it's all innocent," she warned. "It's all fun and games. And you think it's just going to be this one time, but it can really destroy your life."
She's been sober four months and is getting the life back that her addiction to prescription drugs nearly took away.
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