Easy Access Fuels Rising Rates of Teen Prescription Drug Abuse

By Hugh C. McBride

Once upon a time in America, the term “illegal drug use” was likely to summon images of shady characters making furtive purchases in seedy alleyways.

Today, that same term could be accurately depicted by a wholesome-looking teenager sitting at a computer in his family’s living room – or opening the medicine cabinet in the bathroom down the hall.

Illicit online pharmacies and lax parental control of medications have been identified as two leading causes of one of the most prevalent (and dangerous) forms of teen substance abuse today: teen prescription drug abuse.

Prescription Drug Abuse Popular Among Teens

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications trail only alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana in the list of drugs that are commonly abused by U.S. teens.

NIDA estimates that about 7.7 percent of U.S. youth between the ages of 12 and 17 engage in prescription drug abuse every year. This statistic means that almost 2 million young people (or 1 of every 13 among the 12-to-17 age group) has abused prescription drugs at least once in the previous 12 months.

The majority of the most commonly abused prescription drugs fall into one of the following three categories:

  • Opioids – including OxyContin, Percodan, and Percocet
  • Depressants – including Valium, Xanax, and Ambien
  • Stimulants – including Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta

Teens have many reasons for engaging in prescription drug abuse. Some teens abuse stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin in an effort to improve their concentration and thus to better in school. Other commonly use prescription drugs (such as OxyContin) are often abused for recreational purposes. And still other teens may abuse prescription drugs in a misguided attempt to self-medicate or numb themselves to the pain associated with physical or mental health issues.

Teens Find Easy Access to Prescription Drugs

Clearly, teen drug abuse didn’t begin with either the advent of the Internet or the popularization of prescription medications. But these two developments – combined with less-than-vigilant oversight by parents and other adults – have led to skyrocketing rates of teen prescription drug abuse.

On the online front, purchasing prescription drugs without a valid prescription is a stunningly simple procedure. Anyone with a credit card, an Internet connection, and the most rudimentary Google skills can arrange for prescription pills to be delivered to their front door (or any other valid mailing address) with alarming ease.

For those who don’t wish to go the illicit online pharmacy route, accessing prescription drugs to abuse may also be as easy as walking down the hallway or paying a visit to grandma. Parents, grandparents, and other adults who fail to properly control and dispose of their prescription medications may be providing adolescent and teen family members with an easy entrée into the world of prescription drug abuse.

When a teen can steal medications from a relative’s medicine cabinet – or the medicine cabinet of a friend’s relatives – he or she has a ready supply of prescription drugs that can be abused for recreational or other purposes. And with easy access to prescription drugs comes an increased risk of prescription drug abuse, and the many dangers associated with this behavior.

The Dangers of Teen Prescription Drug Abuse

In addition to relatively easy access, prescription drug abuse is also fueled by a misconception that because these medications have legitimate medical uses, they are less dangerous than illicit substances such as heroin, cocaine, or marijuana.

This is clearly a dangerous, if not downright deadly, misconception.

"Kids think that because these are medicines that are prescribed, they are safe," NIDA Director Nora Volkow said in an Aug. 14, 2008, Washington Post article. "The problem is that there is very little difference between the amount they take for a high and the amount that causes an overdose."

In a May 27, 2011, article in Oregon’s Daily Astorian, Clatsop County Medical Examiner JoAnn Stefanelli’s assessment of the risks of prescription drug abuse was much more direct. “Prescription drugs are killing people like crazy,” she said.