- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

Teens increasingly are getting high with legal drugs such as painkillers and mood stimulants, and they’re turning to cough syrup as well, says a government survey released today.

The annual study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, conducted by the University of Michigan, shows mixed results in the nation’s longtime campaign against teen drug abuse.

It found that though fewer teens overall drank alcohol or used illegal drugs in the past year, a small but growing number were popping prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin and stimulants such as Ritalin.

As many as one in every 14 high school seniors said they used cold medicine “fairly recently” to get high, the study found.

It was the first year that the government tracked the frequency of teens reporting getting high from over-the-counter medicine for coughs and colds.

“It’s bad that kids are buying cough syrup and using it this way — it’s not good for them,” said John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Teens taking too many painkillers is troubling as well, Mr. Walters said, noting that they may be pilfering the pills from their parents’ medicine cabinets.

“That is one thing you can do” to avoid misuse by teens — “take the pills that are no longer being used and throw them away, get rid of them,” he said in an interview.

The rise in prescription drug abuse was a troubling conclusion in a study that Mr. Walters described as good news overall because of the drop in reported teen use of alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana and other illicit substances.

An estimated 840,000 fewer teens reported using illegal drugs now compared to five years ago, he said.

The annual study, in its 32nd year, surveyed 50,000 students in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades at more than 400 schools nationwide. It found that over the past year:

— Illegal drug use at all three grade levels dropped, if only slightly. An estimated 36.5 percent of high school seniors reported using illicit drugs at some point in the year.

— Marijuana remained the single most abused drug among teens, although its use also dropped slightly within all three grades. Nearly 12 percent of eighth graders reported using it, compared to 25 percent of 10th graders and 31 percent of high school seniors.

— One-third of eighth graders said they had consumed alcoholic beverages, compared to more than half of 10th graders and two-thirds of seniors surveyed. That also was a small decrease among the three grade levels, but the number of 10th and 12th graders who reported getting drunk increased slightly.

Comparatively, the number of teens who got high from medicines and household items instead of illegal drugs was small. They included:

— Nearly 10 percent of high school seniors admitted using excessive dosages of Vicodin, a slight increase over the last year.

— Nine percent of eighth graders sniffed glue, spray paints, cleaning fluids or other inhalants, down slightly.

— 3.6 percent of 10th graders got high off Ritalin, up two-tenths of 1 percent. Ritalin normally is used to combat effects of attention deficit disorder.

That teens are turning to cough syrup to get high is particularly alarming, experts said, because the medicine is cheap and easy to get. Moreover, few people — teens and their parents alike — recognize the dangers of overdosing on otherwise safe and legal drugs.

“There is this mistaken belief that intentionally abusing prescription and over-the-counter drugs is somehow safer than abusing street drugs,” said Steve Pasierb, president and chief executive of the New York-based Partnership for a Drug-Free America. “What parents don’t realize is that this is about your kids taking six pills with a beer.”

In its own surveys, the partnership has seen an increase over three years in the number of teens who said they get a buzz from cold medicines that contain dextromethorphan — commonly known as “dex” or “skittles.”

“People may say this is a passing fad, but it represents a whole new tier of substance abuse,” Mr. Pasierb said.

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