By John Ramsey
Angela Koskosky said she first took Vicodin after a dentist pulled one of her molars. She was 14 years old.
Sixteen years later, Koskosky has not forgotten the feeling and extra energy the pills gave her. At 20, she was snorting and injecting prescription painkillers. It took 18 months in prison – for prescription forgery and other crimes related to addiction – to slow her down.
Today, Koskosky counts as a rare success story. She works with recovering addicts at Myrover-Reese Fellowship Homes, and she has a happy marriage and a daughter on the way. And she has not been high in three years.
“It’s a lot of kids getting into their parents’ medicine cabinets,” she said. “The problem is that the older generation doesn’t realize how dangerous these prescription drugs are. They’ll just leave them out. They’ve got to lock them up.”
A report published this year by the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force said prescription drug misuse is the fastest-growing cause of teen death in the state.
“While most causes of child death are declining, deaths due to poisoning are increasing,” the report said. “This trend is driven by teen misuse of prescription drugs.”
One in eight high school seniors admitted having used painkillers without a prescription, according to a national study released last year by University of Michigan researchers.
Painkillers are the second-most popular drug among 12- to 17-year-olds after marijuana, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The Cumberland County school system is working to gather better statistics on the prevalence of prescription drug use on its campuses.
Robin MacGregor, guidance counselor coordinator for the school system, said administrators have heard reports from students of “punch bowl” or “candy” parties in which children pour bottles of various prescription drugs into a punch bowl, then take a few to see what happens.
“It’s extremely frightening because it’s so dangerous,” MacGregor said. “Unfortunately, if you have fairly naive youth that don’t understand they’re taking something that’s going to change their body chemistry and possibly be lethal, that makes us very afraid for their futures.”
Prescriptions for children are supervised at school by a medication clerk who keeps the drugs locked away. But it is nearly impossible to catch cases of students illegally bringing pills from home unless another student reports it.
Dr. Eron Manusov, director of the Duke/Southern Regional Area Health Education Center Family Medicine Residency Program in Fayetteville, said his children have told him they could buy painkillers anytime they want. It’s known in their school, Manusov said, as “going to see grandma.”
“It’s probably much worse than we even know of as a public health problem,” Manusov said. “I have 16-year-olds coming in asking for Percocet because their back hurts.”
Kenneth Smith and Sandra Norfleet, addiction specialists at Roxie Avenue Center for detoxification, said the stories of young drug users often break their hearts.
Norfleet knows a 28-year-old addict who started abusing painkillers after flipping his four-wheeler when he was 15 or 16. Another patient told her he began using painkillers when he was 9 because he found them at home.
“We’ve seen a lot of young adults that started as teenagers,” Smith said. “By the time they come to us, they’re totally addicted and their life is pretty much in shambles.”
That’s why it is so important, guidance counselors and addiction specialists say, that parents keep their medicines locked away.