Fresno County Projects Address Teen Drug Abuse

FRESNO — Teenage prescription drug abuse is on the rise in California, so much so that a California Department of Education survey assessing student well-being included questions about it for the first time in its last statewide report.

The California Healthy Kids Survey collects data on 9th and 11th grade students’ attitudes, experiences and behaviors that are related to school and learning. Questions cover topics such as violence and harassment, family and school support networks, safety, physical and mental health, and substance abuse.

The last survey conducted also asked specific questions about the use of prescription painkillers and other prescription drugs, such as barbiturates.

According to the 2008-2010 statewide survey, 17% of 11th graders and 13% of 9th graders reported they had used prescription painkillers to get high at least once. It also showed that 10% of 11th graders and 7% of 9th graders reported they had tried barbiturates or tranquillizers at least once.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicates that among 12- to 13-year-olds, prescription medications are the drug of choice, over even alcohol or marijuana.

Painkiller Prescriptions up Tenfold in California

In 2009, more than two billion prescription painkillers were prescribed in California alone, a tenfold increase compared with 2000, according to the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement at the California Department of Justice.

Nationally, one in five teens say they can get prescription drugs in less than an hour and 70% report getting them from their own home, family or friends, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

The same survey reports that the average family has 10 to 15 prescription drugs that they haven’t disposed of or used up.

“Almost without exception, the adolescents that come to us get the drugs from friends and family,” said Dale White, president of the not-for-profit Central California Recovery in Fresno, a drug treatment center.

White says he primarily sees teenagers addicted to opiates, such as Vicodin and OxyContin, and benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Valium.

“It’s become the desirable way to get high in school. With alcohol, you can smell it. With prescription drugs, they only get caught if they can’t wake up,” said White. “Kids are very crafty. They carry a second cell phone and they can take the battery out and there’s enough room for two OxyContin pills to fit in.”

He’s also concerned about kids when they graduate from high school and no longer have consistency and structure. “That’s when the wheels fall off, kids start to steal and sell drugs and some desperately switch to heroine,” White said. “It’s a huge concern.”

Fresno County Project Targets Schools, Communities

Fresno County has the only comprehensive, community-based program for combating youth and prescription drug abuse in the state, said Rolando Valero, program manager for the Lock It Up Project. The project is part of the not-for-profit California Health Collaborative and is funded by the Fresno County Department of Behavioral Health.

Lock It Up targets communities in Fresno County with high rates of prescription drug abuse, including Clovis, Coalinga and Parlier, which have higher painkiller use rates than the statewide average.

One goal of the project is to stress the importance of locking up prescription drugs. The project’s Pharmacy Initiative, for instance, provides independent pharmacies with informational flyers that warn parents about the dangers of prescription drugs and how to correctly dispose of or lock up drugs at home. Pharmacies also sell medicine lock boxes that cost about $15 each.

Since July 2010, the groundbreaking project also has developed partnerships with school districts, medical and behavioral health professionals, parents and youth to educate and disseminate information about preventing prescription drug abuse. Since July 2011, almost 23,000 Fresno County residents and 11,000 students have participated in town hall meetings, school assemblies and other outreach events that target drug abuse prevention, said Valero.

The project also is working to develop a curriculum that focuses on youth and prescription drug abuse and meets California’s educational standards, said Valero.

Alliance With Women’s Initiative

The Lock It Up project has also formed an alliance with the Fresno County Women’s Initiative, a United Way program. The Women’s Initiative partnered with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office to create safe drop off boxes for people to discard prescription drugs.

“There was already the Lock It Up program, but there was no place to drop off prescription drugs after people cleaned them out,” said Lynne Ashbeck, mayor pro-tem of Clovis and co-chair of the Fresno County Women’s Initiative.

The Women’s Initiative decided to focus on teenage prescription drug abuse because it was “this sort of obvious, incredible problem that no one was talking about in a coordinated way,” said Ashbeck, who is also Regional Vice President of the Hospital Council of Northern and Central California. “It’s the epidemic that no one talks about that is so easily controllable when you think the problem starts in your bathroom.”

“We’ve marshaled all kinds of interest around this. It hasn’t cost any money. The Postal Service donated the boxes,” said Ashbeck.

There are currently seven locked drop boxes in Fresno County. Since they were set up this summer, approximately 240 pounds of prescription drugs have been dropped off in two of the boxes, one in Clovis and the other at the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, said Jose Flores, a captain in the Sheriff’s Office and the mayor of Clovis.

“The bad thing is kids think [prescription] drugs are cleaner because they’re made in a pharmaceutical lab. Kids think they’re not as dangerous as street drugs,” said Flores. “But it leads to abusing more potent drugs. We can’t lose a generation. As a community, we have to protect our young.”

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