When it comes to teens and drug abuse, prescription medications (or "pharmies") are now second only to marijuana in popularity. Overall, teen abuse of illicit drugs is down 24 percent since 2001, according to the University of Michigan. But prescription drugs are another story. An estimated 2.1 million teens are abusing them—a figure that has hardly changed since the government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health started tracking it in 2002. In response, the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) is spending $14 million on an advertising blitz about the problem, which kicked off on Super Bowl Sunday. (Remember the ad with the drug dealer in the fast-food parking lot complaining that business is down since so many teens have started using drugs from their parents' medicine cabinets?) Over the next three months the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign will run print, online and TV ads about teen prescription drug abuse. "Most teens do not believe that prescription drugs are as dangerous as so-called street drugs," says John P. Walters, director of the ONDCP. "[But] these are powerful and dangerous drugs that can cause dependency and death."
One suburban Philadelphia family knows. Evan, who requested we not use his last name, is now 19, and he started using marijuana at 14. Soon he began grinding up and snorting Ambien, prescribed to him for a sleeping problem. Later he added other prescription drugs as well as ecstasy, mushrooms and cocaine to the mix—though Ambien remained his first-choice drug. Finally, after a suicide attempt during his freshman year at New York University's film school, Evan wound up in a four-month inpatient treatment program and vowed to stay straight. He says he has not touched drugs or alcohol since Dec. 6, 2006. He and his father, George, a math and history teacher, have now volunteered to work with the ONDCP to educate other families about prescription drug abuse. In an exclusive interview, Evan and his father each share what they've learned with NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Evan, how did you start abusing drugs?
Evan: It all started freshman year of high school. I smoked pot for the first time. Over the course of two or three months it progressed to an everyday kind of thing. [Then] some girls in my high school who started snorting pills told me all the crazy stories about stuff that had happened while they'd done it.
What did you feel like when you snorted Ambien?
I got very goofy and very, very apathetic, like nothing in the world really mattered to me, and it felt great to someone who'd been up in his head and depressed and anxious. When I introduced other friends to it and they enjoyed it, suddenly I was like the cool kid who knew about this drug. I shared it with them, but once I had introduced someone to it, they'd be like, "Hey, my mom takes that." They would steal it from their mom or dad.
Did your friends give Ambien to you?
Yeah, or I'd buy it from them. Sometimes I'd lie and say I lost my prescription so my parents would get it filled again.
What other prescription drugs did you take?
I did Sonata, which is another sleeping pill. I did Ativan, Xanax, Valium—those were all more on the downer side. And then some uppers, like Adderall or Ritalin. Then there were a few painkillers throughout.
Where did you get them?
Other kids. Or at concerts. Occasionally you'd be able to find someone who was selling a lot of pharmaceuticals, or "pharmies," as they call them. You know it's made by someone in a lab.
You trusted the prescription drugs more than the illicit ones?
Exactly. You figure big business is selling these things. It's a lot safer than somebody who made crystal meth in their trailer park. Granted, the people who made it weren't intending for you to do eight at a time and put it through your nose.
Do you think pot and prescription drugs are number one and number two among teens because they seem safer than other drugs?
You rarely see any movies about people who face horrible consequences for smoking pot. They've got all the joke stoner movies. There's no "Requiem for a Dream" or "Scarface" based upon people smoking pot. The bad things that come from it are mostly junk food and cost as opposed to overdoses and heavy arrests. It's not too looked-down-upon in our society, especially with everything going on with the legalization efforts.
What's your advice for parents?
You've got to stay connected. Parents have got to educate themselves as much as possible about addiction, about their kids' friends, their social group, where they're going on Friday and Saturday nights. You'll know when you start seeing them sneaking around, because there's going to be a sense of guilt in the child. They'll see warning signs. They'll see changes in behavior, whether it's a drop in school grades or frequent red eyes. It can really happen to anyone. I come from the Main Line, a nice suburb of Philadelphia. I go to a good college. I still had a few overdoses and almost died.
And you blacked out, even in high school?
Oh, yeah. That became the Friday night goal: who could black out first.
How did you get to the point where you wanted to kill yourself?
I had been stealing from my roommate. I'd been lying to my parents, spending all their money. I had two different doctors writing me prescriptions. I was hated by most of the people that I knew. I was basically failing out of the school of my dreams. I had ruined the life of a girl back at home who had been nothing but sweet to me. Most of all, I hated myself, doing all these things.
But you couldn't stop?
Exactly. I was hopeless and alone, and it just seemed so logical and easy to just give up.
What do you do when you go to concerts now?
I listen to the music. It's this weird new thing I'm trying! I see the crowd that I thought I wanted to be a part of: the people who are missing half the show to go to the bathroom to snort whatever.
It was hardest for you to get over Ambien?
Yeah. In rehab it was easy for me to be done with pot. It leaves you feeling burned out. The only thing I still had longing for was the Ambien. It's hard to believe, even for me, that after doing coke and ecstasy and all these hard drugs that the one that would still pique my interest would be a sleeping pill.
How did you feel about Heath Ledger's death?
It reminded me of what could have happened to me last year. Those kinds of things are really sad for me. Being where I am at now, I know there's a solution. It sucks to see other people not find this way out, the recovery aspect of it, because it really is the best thing I've ever found in my life.
What happened to the high school girls who told you about grinding up prescription drugs?
One went to jail and the other one died. She overdosed on heroin. It was her first time doing it.
What do you think of the White House campaign?
The prescription thing is huge. People know coke is bad; people know heroin is bad. You don't need too many commercials out there saying that. The whole idea that this thing that the doctor's prescribing you could very easily become an addictive habit, or cause an overdose, or get into your kid's hands and suddenly he and his friends have a new weekend activity—that's something people need to know.
NEWSWEEK also spoke to Evan's father, George. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How did you find out about Evan's problem?
George: We knew marijuana was a part of his lifestyle to some degree, and we thought the Ambien was being taken properly. We didn't put it together. We were the typical parents. He went off to college in fall of 2006. And things escalated out of our control. He had more access to drugs. He had two prescriptions for Ambien being written. Ultimately he told my wife on Dec. 3 that he felt he was addicted to it and was seeking counseling and not to tell me. Three days later he called us to say goodbye. He had slit his wrists. We called his college, and they swung into action, found him very quickly. He was in the basement of his dorm.
What kind of treatment program did he attend?
He went to the Caron Foundation in Wernersville, Pa. He spent four months there, from Dec. 14, 2006, to April 15, 2007. If he had come home in 30 days, he probably would have picked up and used again very quickly.
What about your other kids?
They're OK. We've had to heal the whole house because of this. The guilt we felt as parents, the failure we felt as parents—how could this happen? It happened under our nose. We let it escalate without knowing. Then the focus as he's rehabilitating turns much to him, and [our daughters] are somewhat neglected and feel that the drug addict is getting all the attention. There's this huge ripple effect.
Evan told his story to sixth- through twelfth-graders at your school last month. What happened?
[He told them,] "I'm two years older than you. I went to school with some of your brothers and sisters, and it can happen to anyone." They saw that as so real. Here's a kid from a good suburb, went to a good school, got into a great college, respectable parents—but it happened to him. The standing ovation was instantaneous. When you and I were growing up, the drug addict was some skid-row bum who just wasn't making it in life. That's not true anymore at all.
Were there signs that in hindsight you'd like to share with other parents?
Weight loss. [He became] less approachable, more secretive, angry, anxious, confrontational. We exchanged blows, I called the cops on him, trying to scare him straight. His good grades threw us off a bit. He was maintaining the work, so [we thought] things couldn't be too bad.
Why do you think teens are abusing prescription drugs?
The kids feel [wrongly] that if it's a prescription, it's safer.