Pot, alcohol, steroids, cigarettes, meth, ecstasy and LSD are being used less and less by American teenagers since the 1990s when such abuse problems peaked.
But in the same period that street drugs have become less popular with youngsters, misuse of prescription drugs has been on the rise, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which has surveyed youngsters across the country since 1975.
"I think a lot of young people believe that they are somehow safe because they are prescribed by physicians," said Lloyd Johnston, a professor at the University of Michigan's Institute of Social Research. "But without the active management of a physician, usually in cases where they are being given for pain control, they can be very dangerous."
Johnston oversaw the National Institute on Drug Abuse's latest "Monitoring the Future" survey.
The latest survey showed that abuse of OxyContin and Vicodin, both prescription painkillers, continued at levels that have experts in Lawrence and nationally concerned.
In 2005, 9.5 percent of high school seniors admitted abuse of Vicodin, ranking it among the most commonly abused drugs.
Investigations are under way in schools in Baldwin and Tonganoxie, where students allegedly used and distributed prescription drugs.
District drug policy
The Lawrence school board has a policy for dealing with drugs and alcohol use at school: ¢ For a first offense of being under the influence, students receive a three-day suspension or a one-day suspension with the condition they get an alcohol/drug assessment by a mental health practitioner. A second offense brings a five-day suspension or a three-day suspension with the alcohol/drug assessment. For three or more offenses, students are given 10-day suspensions with a long-term suspension hearing. ¢ If they possess alcohol, illegal drugs or nonprescribed controlled substances at school, there are stiffer sanctions. For a first offense with alcohol, students are suspended for five days. For a first offense for illegal drugs or controlled substances, students will be suspended for five days, on condition of completion of a drug and alcohol assessment, or for 10 days and a referral to the superintendent for long-term suspension. ¢ For making, selling or distributing alcohol, illegal drugs or controlled substances, students will be suspended from school for 10 days and referred to the superintendent for long-term suspension or expulsion.
At Baldwin High School, there was alleged use of illegally obtained prescription drugs by students, according to Baldwin Police Chief Mike McKenna.
In Tonganoxie, Police Lt. Billy Adcox said it was believed two male ninth-graders distributed between 50 and 150 hydrocodone pills, also known as Vicodin or Lortab. The prescription for the drug had been written for one of the students' relatives.
And in Lawrence, though there have been no recent arrests, students say abuse is a reality.
"It does happen," said Taylor Renfro, a Lawrence High School senior. "I wouldn't consider it a huge problem, but it does happen."
Kristin Penny, also a LHS senior, said she'd heard fellow students talk of using prescription drugs to get high, but that the abuse is generally private.
"It's a personal deal," Penny said. "They take them on their own time."
Zack Johnson, a Free State High School senior, said some prescription drugs he had heard students were abusing included hydrocodone and Adderall and Ritalin, two drugs used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Paula Hatcher, school nurse at Free State, said she hasn't dealt with any prescription drug cases at school but thinks such abuse is "becoming a problem" among teens.
"I've been reading more and more about it in nursing journals," she said. "I think we live in a society where people want to be cured instantly. So every time they have a pain, they want a prescription. So maybe they are more readily available."
Charlie Kuszmaul said it was little surprise that young people would turn to prescription drugs, given their prevalence and relatively easy availability.
Kuszmaul directs the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center's Working to Recognize Alternative Possibilities school program. He said prescription drugs are widely advertised on television, building awareness.
"People will go to pretty great extremes, particularly young people, to get a high," he said.
Patrick Parker, director of pharmacy and intravenous therapies at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, said taking a large dose of Vicodin would make a person drowsy and less inhibited.
An even larger dose, he said, could lead to sedation, respiratory problems and possible death.
He said his biggest fear is the effects that large doses of acetaminophen, a component in drugs such as Vicodin, can have on the liver.
"Tylenol (which contains acetaminophen) is a pretty safe drug when taken in normal low-dose use but can be very dangerous in high levels," he said. "It can cause permanent liver damage, which is a real problem."
He said pain medications are safe when taken as directed but can be dangerous if abused.
"They can be addictive," he said. "To get the desired effect, it will take a progressively larger and larger dose."
Two LHS administrators said they occasionally had dealt with prescription drug busts at the school.
"It's happened here as well, unfortunately," LHS Principal Steve Nilhas said. "We haven't had any incidents that we know of this year, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. Certainly we try to be on top of it and be as proactive as we can about it."
Matt Brungardt, LHS associate principal, said an arrest last year at the school involved a student who traded one of his prescription pills for a cigarette. The drug was thought to have been Adderall, an amphetamine used for ADHD.
Free State Principal Joe Snyder said he couldn't recall an incident involving prescription drug abuse at the school, though there have been problems with alcohol and marijuana.
But Hatcher, the Free State nurse, said parents should "never assume that their child won't be the one."
She advises parents to keep prescription drugs locked up, count what they have and talk with their children about abuse concerns.
A key sign a child might be abusing drugs would be withdrawal from normal activities, she said.
"If they aren't engaging in activities that they were doing before, they might be filling that time with a new activity," Hatcher said. "Drugs become their new activity."