Online Exclusive

Prescription Drug Abuse and Teenagers

There are few things more terrifying than getting a call from your teenager’s school telling you he has been caught with a bag of pills. I speak from experience. As a parent, and a justice professional, I am keenly aware of how prescription medication abuse has become a deadly problem. Health care, criminal justice, legislative and mental health practitioners across the country attempt to tackle this problem daily by instituting new national programs, raising awareness and working together to improve accountability. The facts about prescription drug abuse are scary especially for our children:


  • Prescription drugs are the second most abused drugs in the U.S. (Office of National Drug Control Policy [ONDCP])
  • 52 million Americans aged 12 and older reported non-medical use of any psychotherapeutic (prescription-type pain reliever, tranquilizer, stimulant or sedative)(Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMSHA], 2008)
  • 1 of 5 students in grades 9 to 12 have abused a prescription drug (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2009)
  • Each day, 2,000 teens aged 12 to 17 use a psychotherapeutic non-medically for the first time (National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA], 2008)
  • 1.9 million youth aged 12 to 17 abuse prescription drugs (NIDA, 2008)
  • 29% of teenagers in treatment are there for prescription drug addiction (SAMSHA, 2008)
  • Between 1999 and 2006, hospital admissions for prescription drug overdoses increased 65%
  • Poisoning has become the second leading cause of unintentional injury death surpassing automobile crashes


Sedated Stigma

Although made up of the same substance, prescription drug opioids, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, codeine and methadone don’t have the same stigma as street opioids, such as heroin.  James McDonough, former Director of the Florida Office of Drug Control and Secretary of the Department of Corrections explains how this affects teenagers, “Easy access makes them much more popular and easy to use,” he states. “It camouflages the stigma of going into a dark alley to shoot up. All you’re doing is going into Grandma’s medicine cabinet and taking some of her pills.” His statement highlights one of the biggest problems in teenage prescription drug abuse, where the pills are coming from.

Parents: Passive Pushers

“Kids are getting these things from their parents, grandparents and friend’s parents,” explains Sara Oren, liaison for Operation Medicine Cabinet (OMC) at the Broward County Sheriffs Office (FL). Broward County has one of the highest rates of prescription drug abuse in the nation. Because prescription drugs have a legitimate medical purpose, many adults utilize them and have them in the house. Since the mid-1990s, medical personnel began prescribing psychotherapeutics more frequently. Drug companies began advertising the benefits of these drugs to the general public increasing individual requests to medical personnel. Increased legitimate use and wide-spread advertisement reflects to teens these pills are common and safe. Although youth often give pills to each other, they aren’t generally purchased originally by a dealer like other illegal drugs. These deadly drugs come from our own homes.

Promising Programs

With the increase in prescription drug abuse, many promising programs have been instituted. One, which targets the source, is Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMP). A PDMP is a state-wide electronic database which collects designated data on substances dispensed in the state. This information is then dispensed to authorized designees, such as law enforcement. PDMPs help decrease an individual’s ability to go from doctor to doctor getting prescriptions (doctor shopping). It also helps decrease the amount of shady clinics prescribing pills for cash and non-legitimate medical reasons (pill mills). About 40 states have PDMPs currently and several others are enacting legislation to establish one.

Another program established by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is the National Prescription Drug Take-Back initiative. In October of last year, President Obama signed the Safe and Secure Drug Disposal Act of 2010. This allowed the DEA to establish a program where individuals could safely dispose of their unwanted or expired prescription medication. Numerous communities in partnership with local law enforcement have held events. During the second annual national event, on April 30th, 2011, 5,361 sites held events representing all 50 states. People turned in 188 tons of medication for proper disposal. This brings the total up to 309 tons since the program’s inception. Although the national event is once a year, some agencies have found the need is high enough to hold local events monthly.  


Anyone can help monitor youth for signs there might be a problem with prescription drugs. Parents, school staff and law enforcement working with youth can participate in education workshops offered by agencies such as Operation Medicine Cabinet in Broward County. OMC offers these suggestions:

Some signs a child might be abusing prescription drugs:

  • Personality changes
  • Social withdrawal
  • A change in appearance
  • Erratic behavior

What parents can do:

  • Monitor your medicine cabinet
  • Talk with your child about drug use
  • Attend a “drug take back” program to rid your home of useless or expired medications

Next Steps

For law enforcement personnel, seek partnerships with other agencies. Numerous prescription drug task forces have been established throughout the country. Many include elements of education, monitoring and enforcement. Collaborate within the community, including with health care professionals and school personnel. “SRO’s are great because they could more quickly identify if there is a problem and they can deal with the kids directly,” says Oren. “It’s helpful. You want to recognize it before it becomes a big problem.”

Many websites exist with useful resources in combating prescription drug abuse. Broward County’s includes their televised public service announcement. The DEA’s website includes Take-Back fliers and more information on establishing a Take Back event. NIDA has a website for teens giving details on prescription drug abuse and the science behind addiction. Each gives additional resources as well.

When my son was asked to hold that bag of Oxycodone for a friend, he agreed. When I asked him what he would do if she had handed him a bag of cocaine, he quickly replied, “I would have said no way.” The difference is frightening and shows how adults-parents, school personnel and law enforcement need to work together to raise awareness and educate, monitor and assist our children to stay away from abusing prescription drugs. We need to also monitor ourselves and make sure we’re not inadvertently supplying teenagers. Professionally, we need to continue supporting programs addressing prescription drug abuse such as PDMPs and Take Back events. Working together, like in many things, we can make a difference.

Web Links:


About The Author:

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.