Idle Hands

     They're not just smokin' in the boy's room anymore.

     According to national drug surveys, it's more likely kids are popping pills in there. A combination of a drug-savvy kid nation with multiple technological avenues to pursue drugs, undetected and undeterred, has made a parent's medicine cabinet the most likely feed for the teen vice.

     "The problem today is truly the technologies," Joan Parkinson, an expert in counseling and director of parent education with the notMYkid organization. "The kids have just so much more awareness about them. They can go out on the Internet and find out everything ... about what drugs to use; how to do it; how to hide it, and then they find out about it from their peers through cell phones and everything else. Drugs are so much more available."

     Parkinson says the Arizona-based organization's geographical location plays a part in the state's drug issues.

     "We have 350 miles of border that are totally open," she says. "So we have drugs coming up by the ton, and we're only confiscating them by the pounds. So these kids have every availability to drugs: they can go down to Mexico and buy drugs real cheap and bring it back up here."

     However, the pharmaceutical drug phenomenon is not limited to border states. Though the National Institute on Drug Abuse's (NIDA's) Monitoring the Future (MTF) study reported overall drug use by teens in 2007 declined, the subcategory of prescription drugs was an exception. The MTF study details the popular prescription pills Vicodin and OxyContin holding steady for 8th-, 10th- and 12th-grader populations. Other reports show pharmaceutical pills meeting or surpassing overall marijuana usage.

Silent, odorless addiction

     A combination of social factors have contributed to the delinquency of today's youth, giving way to a drug trend that's held steady since it was first aggressively addressed in 2006 by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Addiction treatment professionals and law enforcement have watched the prescription drug abuse and misuse trend hold steady with adolescents since then, with alarming consequences.

     It certainly wasn't cigarette smoke that sent nine middle school girls from Missouri to the hospital in March. After getting sick at school, the school resource officers, first responders and a drug enforcement task force came together at the middle school to investigate what was making so many girls sick — and more importantly, how they got it. The girls admitted to police that they took methadone, a pain reliever used to treat drug addiction.

     St. Joseph Police Sgt. Kevin Cummings says it is believed a high school boy passed the drugs to the girls on the bus. After taking the pills, the girls began to get sick and the school notified its resource officer. Once the girls were transferred to the hospital for methadone overdoses, Cummings says it was a news media melee when word of the young girls with the potent prescription drug in their systems hit.

     "Well, as soon as the girls were getting sick and all the ambulance were there, it turned out it was pretty serious because the news media swarmed all over that one," 32-year St. Joseph PD veteran Cummings says. "And it was — with nine girls going to the hospital because of it. They're all fine now: It only made them sick to their stomach."

     A similar incident occurred in Chandler, Arizona, at the high school where school resource officer Kevin Quinn — a 13-year veteran of Chandler PD — works. Quinn says a few years ago, he had a case where a girl had bought a bag of 30 pills on a trip to Mexico and shared them with her friends. After one of the recipients was sick in the nurse's office, she confessed.

     The problem with pills, as far as school resource officers are concerned, is that one can't be walking by the bathroom and smell what kids are doing inside, like with marijuana — it's harder to detect without another lead. "It's like that old song," Quinn says. "Kids are just smoking in the bathroom and you can smell it. That's the problem with the pills ... you can't be walking by the bathroom and smell that."

     Also alarming is the fact that the MTF survey found 9.6 percent of 12th-graders reported using Vicodin without a prescription in the past year, and 5.3 percent reported using OxyContin — confirming these medications among the most commonly abused prescription drugs, and suggesting that while the other drugs such as marijuana and some amphetamines show waning popularity, the somewhat stable prescription drug use reported in the MTF may be a warning signal.

     The MTF survey results confirm what chemical dependency counselors and law enforcement have been audience to in recent years.

     "What I've seen is an increase in the pharmaceutical drugs Vicodin and OxyContin," says Ken Meuers, a registered addiction specialist (RAS). Meuers is executive director of Prodigal Sons & Daughters, a faith-based, non-profit addiction recovery organization which provides outpatient and peer-supported addiction rehabilitation. "Here on the West Coast, kids can purchase OxyContin on the Internet. So that's kind of hard to keep track of."

Pharm parties

     Experts warn that drug- and tech-savvy kids are becoming their own pharmacists, demonstrated by a relatively new and disturbing social event. A party where kids bring prescription drugs —taken from family or friends' medicine cabinets — mix them together in a bowl and pop a pill cocktail, sometimes washing it down with alcohol, is referred to as a "pharm party," short for pharmaceutical.

     "Kids mix all the drugs together into one bowl and then they just grab a handful, just to see what kind of effect it will have on them," Parkinson says. "It's that feeling of invisibility — that nothing can hurt me and they're all around their friends."

     Parkinson explains that the bad choices adolescents are a result of the juvenile's state of mind. She says their brains are not fully developed until they're in their 20s, so they take great risks, which is why states have laws regulating drugs and alcohol — because officials want kids to get the chance to develop.

     Pharm parties elevate concerns of experts in medical, addiction and law enforcement because kids don't know what kind of high they're going to get or what effects the combinations will produce, making the pharmaceutical experiment especially precarious. Senseless and brazenly careless behavior at pharm parties demonstrates what Parkinson describes about the teenage psyche.

     And the medicine cabinet is as big a threat to teens as the drug dealer on the street, specialists say.

     "Truly, kids today get prescription drugs from anywhere and everywhere around them," Parkinson says. "They go down to the border and get it; somebody will bring it up for them; [or] from the medicine cabinet — and unfortunately, in our medical society today, we are being over-prescribed, and we have [drugs] in our medicine cabinets and they can come in and grab them from anywhere. And sometimes they'll put Tylenol or ibuprofen in its place. That's their way of easily getting high."

'Education is the key'

     Joan Parkinson, director of parent education and action for kids with the notMYkid organization, holds a master's degree in educational as well as clinical counseling. She instructs parents, teachers and kids on the costs of addiction. The nonprofit, Arizona-based group was started by parents whose straight-A son turned out to be a drug addict. The pair believed a child in their community and home could not get addicted to drugs, a belief which initially hindered them from recognizing the problem. Eventually, their son entered a rehabilitation center and became a sober speaker for their newly founded organization, which would use education to combat the "Not my kid" mindset.

     Quinn sees open communication and pervasive teaching as the best remedy as well.

     "Education is the key," Quinn says. "You have to educate the kids and start young — elementary school or junior high — and go from there. Let kids know how bad it is, what's really in it, the things it can do to you, and hopefully some intervention strategies. I just try to talk to the kids like regular people." Quinn's position at the school allows him to interact with kids every day. He says he does not talk down to them, and gives them a lot of what the ramifications will be with certain types of drugs — depending on what they've been caught with. Though the traditional drug education program excludes younger kids, some experts in the treatment and prevention industry are pushing to speak with younger kids.

     "Right now, we're fighting the hard battle of trying to get education down to the young ones, and it's very difficult," Parkinson says. "We're trying to prevent the disease and we have no vaccine. It'd be great if we did have a vaccine that if you took any of these drugs … it wouldn't give you any high. In the meantime, we have all of these kids at risk."

     NotMYkid's mantra is prevention through education. Parkinson believes treatment is not an effective solution to teen drug addiction alone. She and her colleagues believe that speaking to groups of students and presenting the problem and the consequences is the best way to tackle the stability prescription drug abuse has with today's teens.

     Parkinson says society is losing 150 kids a week to drug overdoses. She illustrates that if someone put that number of kids on a plane and flew it across the country and crashed, everybody would be upset. But the plane in this case is invisible.

     "We don't realize how many kids we're losing with this terrible epidemic and disease that's going on around the country," Parkinson says.

     But society could be on its road to recovery. This year, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) launched a national public awareness campaign, which began with advertising during the Super Bowl, and is ONDCP's first paid TV advertising targeting parents in two years, according to the organization. But that report card is still out. Some of the most recent statistics from organizations such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration are based off of data collected in 2006, and the more contemporary state of the issues is yet to be unveiled.

     But even if today's teens are doing a little more than smokin' in the boy's room, as the Motley Crue hit proclaims, that's no cause for losing hope in a rehabilitated youth. Even if today's kids are taking a page from the former bad-boy rockers' hit cover, the light could still be at the end of the tunnel. The Crue had its highest climbing album the year members got sober from their infamously wild and indulgent ways. So if Quinn, Parkinson and other industry officials are successful in their educational prevention endeavors, maybe teachers will be able to "fill kids up with their rules," and authorities will be closer to quelling more than just smoking in school.

Luring children to the candy jar

     In addition to the battle parents and law enforcement are struggling with between teens and prescription drugs, authorities have seen a rise in the drug dealers' efforts to market street drugs to a younger audience.

     In Florida, school officials were warned of candy-flavored drugs which have turned up across the country, according to officials. Florida's attorney general released an advisory to school officials and resource officers that described recent dealer innovations including narcotic-filled gumballs and flavored heroin and methamphetamines.

     Sandi Copes, press secretary for the office of the attorney general in Tallahassee, Florida, calls the statement a preemptive action, and stated the office had not received any reports that the drugs were infecting their area, but it had wanted to make authorities aware of the disconcerting development.

     In March, the Drug Enforcement Administration reported it had seized strawberry-, lemon-, coconut- and cinnamon-flavored cocaine as the result of a federal investigation in Modesto, California.

     "It is very unsettling for me, as a counselor and a professional in the field, to see the drug dealers now going after kids," says Joan Parkinson, director of adult education services for notMYkid, an Arizona-based nonprofit drug education organization. "That, to me, is unbelievable."

     Parkinson has been counseling for 8 years in the Phoenix area and has worked in substance abuse with adolescents and their families, as well as partnered with schools and resource officers in the effort to shed light on the growing drug problem.

     She says drug dealers are using candy-coding methods like adding flavors or presenting drugs in candy-like packages to trick children into taking drugs and consequently, becoming addicted.

     "The flavored cocaine and meth have strawberry, chocolate, root beer and Coca-Cola [flavors added]," Parkinson explains. "It comes in these cute little baggies with smiley faces or snow cones or ice cream cones. Look at Ecstasy, it looks like a Smartie — it looks like cute little candy. The kids think, wow, I can take that. They are appealing to the kids: they're going after them."

     Flavoring drugs not only masks bitter tastes that may discourage children from taking some drugs, but it also presents the drug in a form that is more recognizable and desirable to children, which could add to a child's willingness to ingest harmful substances, which are also highly addictive. The National Survey on Drug use and Health found that as of 2006, the median age that a person first used cocaine and Ecstasy was approximately 20. This alleged attempt by dealers to get kids hands into the "candy" jar earlier than statistics reflect as the initiation age suggests that drug traders recognize that fact, and are making efforts to draw in a younger crowd with the sweetened substances.

     Counselors and enforcement officers believe that the trend is unsettling because it appeals to kids.

     "That tactic will work," Parkinson says. "And the kids, in their mind, will accept it easier. In their mind they think, 'Wow, that just looks like a Smarties' or, 'That just looks like candy to me.' And the drug dealer is going to appear to the whole group. They know they can sell it, they know there's a whole market out there for them."

     Kevin Quinn, a school resource officer in Chandler, Arizona, has heard about the treat trend through the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) and says though he hopes the fad is never proven, the marketing ploy is unscrupulous.

     "I really hope that marketing to kids [is not effective]," Quinn says. "Obviously dealers are doing it for a reason, but that's just a scary thought to think … that drug dealers are targeting kids to kind of get the drugs out there. That's just a scary thought."