Teen Abuse of Painkiller OxyContin on the Rise About 1 in 20 high school seniors now acknowledges taking OxyContin, a prescription drug for managing severe pain that, when abused, can be powerfully addictive. The consequences can be tragic.
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Teen Abuse of Painkiller OxyContin on the Rise

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Teen Abuse of Painkiller OxyContin on the Rise

Teen Abuse of Painkiller OxyContin on the Rise

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

New figures on teen drug abuse find a decline in cigarette smoking and the use of some illicit drugs. But the federal numbers show that OxyContin use by 12th-graders is up 40 percent in just three years. OxyContin is an effective medication for severe pain, but when abused it can be as addictive as heroin. More than one in 20 high school seniors acknowledged taking OxyContin. NPR's Chris Arnold spoke with young people and their families.

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

Teen-agers are abusing all kinds of prescription drugs. They're the number-two most used drugs, behind marijuana. Kids are doing stimulants, barbiturates, painkillers. And many don't realize how highly addictive and dangerous some of these pills can be, OxyContin in particular.

RYAN: I was sick as a dog, and, like, I was in bed and I couldn't believe that, like, I was actually scared, like, really scared...

ARNOLD: Ryan is a 17-year-old high school senior from Tewskbury, Massachusetts. He says just a week after he started using OxyContin, he realized that if he didn't get a pill every day or two, he'd start to feel kind of sick. So he kept using it, but he says he had no idea how bad he was hooked until the next time he tried to stop.

RYAN: You felt like someone was inside of your head with a hammer. You just, like, feel like you're going to die, like, just laying there in the bed, like, the sweat just pouring off of you. And then, like, five minutes later you could be freezing cold where you have, like, eight layers of clothing on and, like, a winter jacket. And then you'd be like throwing up and have a pounding headache, where you'd cry yourself to sleep.

ARNOLD: We met with Ryan at a drug treatment clinic at Children's Hospital in Boston. We spoke to teen-agers and families who've come here from four different middle-class suburbs across the region. All had similar stories about OxyContin.

RYAN: Like, I didn't actually ever really use drugs. Like, I smoked pot, like, twice and, like, the next drug I tried was OxyContin.

ARNOLD: Ryan says that was at a party when he was 16. Kids crush up the 12-hour, time-release pills and snort them, so they get hit with all that opiate at once. Ryan says pot made him feel weirded out; Oxy just made him feel unbelievably good: relaxed, warm and comfortable. And, he says, it's easy to get.

RYAN: There's always someone that has it. Like, there's kids selling it. Like, I know alone, like, 10 kids that sell it themselves.

ARNOLD: OxyContin's also very expensive on the streets, $80 for one pill. Ryan says he cashed $7,000 in savings bonds his aunts had given him on birthdays, sold his PlayStation, leather jacket, cell phone, everything he had just to stay high and keep from getting sick before he finally broke down and asked his parents for help. Looking back on it, Ryan says he didn't think using OxyContin would be that bad since it was a prescription pill--that made it seem safe--and because so many different kids at his high school were playing around with it.

RYAN: People from every sort of, like, group, like the, like, burnouts, the athletic kids, the, like, geniuses and then, like, girls that, like, were, like, playing, like, wicked good softball, like, and were, like, offered scholarships to places. They would be using it.

(Soundbite of geese)

ARNOLD: Twenty-five miles from Ryan's hometown, two 18-year-olds are hanging out on a front porch in Winthrop, a working-class neighborhood near Boston's Logan Airport. Katie(ph) and Mike are recovering OxyContin addicts. Mike says he was always an athlete and played football. Up until sophomore year, he went to a prep school with wealthier kids and later transferred to the local public school. He says if anything, he saw more OxyContin at the prep school.

MIKE: Like, all the popular kids, like, that was the cool thing to do. And it was cool because it was so expensive, and it seemed like it was, like, a big rich drug, you know what I mean? And a lot of rich kids were doing it because the poor kids couldn't afford it, you know? And the poor kids didn't do it; they smoked weed.

ARNOLD: Still, OxyContin is so expensive that a lot of kids, like Katie, have to start stealing money.

KATIE: I just stole so much money from my parents, like, and me and my friend, like, she used--like, I stole my mother's ATM card, she stole her mother's ATM card and, like, that's just, like, money every day. Like, we didn't care. Like, I stole, like, over $5,000 from my parents in two months.

ARNOLD: Katie also wrote checks from her mother's checkbook, and her parents say she and her friends stole cameras and jewelry from their house. Somebody stole her father's wedding ring out of his top drawer. Katie's parents agreed to an interview.

Katie's Father: It's like someone just punched you in the stomach. It just--never going to get it back. And what did it get used for?

Katie's Mother: Right.

Katie's Father: The addiction.

Katie's Mother: My thing was, like, why aren't you feeling more remorse?

ARNOLD: But Katie's parents say they feel lucky to still have their daughter. It's been more than a year since they got her into a treatment program, but she's relapsed twice. Doctors say OxyContin addiction can plague people for years. And some users move on to heroin. That's because it's a lot cheaper than OxyContin and it satisfies the same craving. Instead of $80 for a pill, heroin's 5 bucks a bag around Boston. One night when Katie was getting sick and desperate, she called a woman she'd done Oxy with before.

KATIE: 'Cause I knew she did OCs and I also knew she did heroin, so I was like, `Well, let me meet up with her 'cause, like, maybe she'll have something.' And, like--but I didn't think, like, if she had heroin, I would do it, like--and, like, I was like I didn't think I was going to, but then, like, when I was like--when I had that option, like, to be sick or do this, like, I did that.

ARNOLD: All the teen-agers we spoke with for this story said they knew at least one young person who had overdosed and died recently, either on OxyContin or on heroin after first getting hooked on Oxys.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CHERYL OATES: Him and his brother.

ARNOLD: Cheryl Oates is sitting in her living room in the nice, middle-class suburb of Burlington, Massachusetts, watching a video the funeral parlor put together with pictures of her son's life.

Ms. OATES: I mean, the day he was born, him sleeping--get in bed with his brother, his graduation, his proms, when we took him to the Bahamas. Really, it helps me 'cause for the few minutes that that video's on, I can be back with him when things were OK.

ARNOLD: Oates has watched this video almost every day since her son Christopher Oates died of a heroin overdose just two months ago. He was 19 years old. Oates says her son was not the kind of kid you'd expect to become a drug addict. He was a captain of his football and wrestling teams at Burlington High School. He'd bring five or six friends home for dinner after practice. And Cheryl Oates says he got good grades and did not have behavior problems.

Ms. OATES: He was the type of kid that would walk through the mall with me and hold my hand. He didn't care what other people thought and said. Christopher was just his own person.

ARNOLD: But by his junior year Christopher was experimenting with Percocet. He had it prescribed for a football injury. His senior year he and some friends were using OxyContin and got hooked, and soon after he graduated he started using heroin, too.

Ms. OATES: The night before Christopher overdosed was Wednesday night. We sat in the kitchen, and we talked until probably 3:00 in the morning, and he said he knew he needed help. He was such a good kid and loved so much. And he got grabbed by something that was greater than him.

ARNOLD: Oates says she'd tell other parents to keep all kinds of prescription medication at their house or a grandparent's house in a locked cabinet, just to make it a bit harder for kids to start experimenting with them. She says it's scary that more than 5 percent of high school seniors nationally now report using OxyContin in the past year. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.

NORRIS: For more on the study and treatment options, go to npr.org.

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