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Prescription drug abuse continues to rise among young people

GRAND FORKS -- The way law enforcement officials describe it, prescription drugs are so common among young people in the region now that they are practically a form of currency.

Pills are being traded for marijuana, favors, gas money or other pills. Some pills are stolen, perhaps from older relatives with prescriptions; some are prescribed to the young people themselves.

Students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may sell or trade the Adderall they get from their pharmacists to fit in.

Some prescription drugs, such as hydrocodone, are so common that students describe them as free.

The trade and abuse of such drugs in the region are "out of control," according to Aeisso Schrage, a member of the drug task force in Polk County, Minn. "It seems like I'm running into it all the time."

Young people assume prescription drugs are safer because they're legal and easy to get, officials say.

"I'm guessing that for everyone who's actually caught with an illicit drug like marijuana or meth, there are probably 10 cases that have to do with prescription pills," said Detective Travis Jacobson of the Grand Forks Police Department.

Focus on teens

The department receives a report of prescription drug abuse "at least once or twice every couple of weeks," Jacobson said. This past fall, the number of arrests or reports related to prescription drugs was the highest that he's seen in his 12 years with the department, he said.

But statistics are hard to come by because law enforcement agencies do not always track prescription drug abuse separately from other forms of drug abuse. Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Minn., police combine arrests for both in the category of narcotics.

The Polk County drug task force, however, did report 24 prescription drug-related arrests from January 2011 to January 2012, with a third involving teenagers.

Grand Forks police Lt. Dwight Love said citations wouldn't necessarily reflect the number of young people caught with prescription drugs. "Our first priority is to get the kids some help. So citation numbers aren't really an accurate account, because the last thing we really care about is the citation. If that means getting them to the hospital or getting their parents involved, that's what we want."

Prescription drug abuse tends to happen more with high school students than college students here, law enforcement and education officials say.

Some female students at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks do use Adderall to help them stay up longer to study or suppress their appetite, but many are aware that abusing prescription drugs is a terrible idea, said Jacobson and Jane Croeker, UND's health and wellness promotion director.


Though marijuana remains the drug of choice for many young people, abuse of prescription drugs is on the rise, and, in some cases, they appear to have overtaken marijuana.

This may be the case in North Dakota:

- In a 2011 survey of students 15 and older, 16.2 percent of respondents said they had used prescription drugs not prescribed to them at least once in their life.

- 15.3 percent said they had used marijuana at least once.

- 6 percent said they had used hard drugs, such as cocaine, at least once.

In northwest Minnesota, marijuana remains prominent:

- In a 2010 survey of students, 8 percent of male seniors and 5 percent of females said they had used prescription painkillers more than once in the past 12 months; 3 percent of males and 1 percent of females said they had used these drugs 10 or more times.

-- 6 percent of males and 5 percent of females said they had used prescription ADHD drugs, such as Adderall, at least once. Pain relievers and ADHD drugs were the most popular kinds of prescription drugs for northwest Minnesota seniors.

-- 31 percent of males and 23 percent of females said they had used marijuana at least once; 16 percent of males and 10 percent of females said they had used it 10 or more times.

-- 5 percent of males and 3 percent of females said they had used cocaine at least once.

Nationwide, marijuana also remains prominent, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse:

-- 14.8 percent of seniors surveyed said they used prescription drugs not prescribed to them, with 7.6 percent using Adderall, the most popular in this category. Vicodin, which contains hydrocodone, is the next most popular at 7.5 percent.

-- 36.4 percent of seniors said they had used marijuana.

-- 2.7 percent of seniors said they had used cocaine.

Easy to get

Contributing to the relatively high rates of prescription drug abuse is the fact that they are so widely available.

East Grand Forks Senior High School Principal Brian Loer related what he learned from a former agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who spoke with his students. "They openly said that hydrocodone was the No. 1 drug of choice at our school more than oxycodone because it's easily accessible and free."

Both are painkillers, but hydrocodone refills do not need a new prescription from a doctor.

Those with prescriptions may not always recognize the value of their drugs and are careless, according to Jacobson. Thieves who spot a pill bottle in a car frequently risk a felony charge because the street value of oxycodone, for instance, is around $20 to $80 a pill.

It might surprise the public, he said, "how naïve a lot of people are and how easy these pills are to get their hands on."

With Adderall, some students have their own prescriptions.

"When (other high school students) find out they have Adderall, they want to buy it from them," said Jean Gullicks, a behavioral health specialist at Riverview Clinic in East Grand Forks. "I know many that that's happened to."

About 75 percent of her clients are young people, she said.


The process for getting a prescription drug legally in North Dakota and Minnesota is designed to identify abuse.

When a patient calls the pharmacy for a refill on a prescription, the clinic will be asked to check a list maintained by the states' pharmacy boards that shows the last time the patient was billed for a prescription drug and how many doctors he or she received the prescription from, according to Gullicks.

"If they call often for early refills, or they've been to the emergency room a lot, that's a red flag," said Heather Plante, a nurse who works with Gullicks.

But Gullicks said specialists like her and doctors are hard-pressed to find time to spend with patients to thoroughly vet their medical history and personal background, separating those in real need of help from those who read symptoms on the Internet and know what they should say to get drugs.

Educators, too, have a difficult time though teachers see students throughout the day and have the same checklists that clinics use to assess students with ADHD. East Grand Forks Principal Loer said prescription drug abuse is more of an issue outside his school than inside.

Catching up

Schrage, who gives anti-drug presentations to schools, said the Polk County task force is trying to stay on top of the prescription drug trend through more public education and enforcement.

"A single pill is a felony over here," he said. "We'll get (youth) help, but we'll do it through the courts. We don't usually brush pills aside."

But, even as they crack down on prescription drug abuse, law enforcement officials are seeing heroin use rise. Abusers of prescription drugs that are cut off from their pills turn to heroin, which is cheaper.

Jacobson said area law enforcement agencies find it hard to stay ahead of the drug culture. "But as soon as we respond, we always find ourselves trying to catch up."