When Jenny Gonzalez started providing drug counseling to Valley teenagers 10 years ago, few of them were addicted to prescription painkillers.
Not so today.
Gonzalez, who counsels teens at WestCare, an addiction treatment nonprofit in Fresno, estimates she has seen a ninefold increase in the abuse of prescription drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin over the past decade.
She's not alone: National surveys, educators and law enforcement officials report a rise in pharmaceutical abuse among teenagers.
There is so much concern that local health agencies plan to start placing old mailboxes around Fresno County so people can drop off their unused medicine.
But the new focus on the prescription drug crisis comes too late for some.
Josh Row's addiction started while he attended a junior high school in north Fresno and escalated to OxyContin before he was 17. He died last year from a heroin overdose.
"Josh desperately wanted to get clean," said his mother, Cathy Klassen. "Not one addict says they really want to be a drug addict, but once they get hooked, they don't see any hope."
New efforts to stem the abuse of painkillers are under way in the Valley.
The Fresno Women's Initiative, which is operated through the United Way, recently enlisted Sheriff Margaret Mims to help put retired and repainted U.S. Postal Service mailboxes in front of most Fresno County police and sheriff's stations, where residents will be able to drop off unused or expired prescription drugs.
The program is expected to begin later this spring, Mims said.
By getting rid of the drugs, parents can help keep them out of the hands of experimenting teens, she said.
"Young people are having their first contacts with prescriptions when they get it out of their parents' or relatives' medicine cabinets," Mims said.
The Fresno County project will be similar to prescription drug collection efforts in Los Angeles County.
In less than 15 months, the Los Angeles program has collected 58 tons of expired or unused prescription drugs, said Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
The L.A. drug drop-off points also accept hypodermic syringes and illegal drugs, but only 7.3 pounds have been collected since the program's start, Whitmore said.
The issue of prescription drug abuse is getting more attention in the central San Joaquin Valley:
- Fresno State is forming a subcommittee of the university's alcohol safety council to examine the issue. In a 2009 national study, 10.5% of Fresno State students who were surveyed said they used painkillers that were not prescribed to them. The national average was 8.9%.
- Clovis police received a $10,000 grant through AT&T's Prescription Over-the-counter Prevention Program to alert young people to the dangers of prescription drugs.
- The Lock It Up program, which started in October and is funded through the Fresno County Department of Behavioral Health, provides fliers at pharmacies urging parents to secure their prescription drugs. The program targets schools in Clovis, Fresno, Sanger, Kingsburg, northeast Fresno County, Selma and Riverdale because those areas had a high percentage of prescription painkiller use reported by students in a recent state survey, program manager Rolando Valero said.
Prescription drug abuse among young people has been on the rise locally and nationwide for about a decade, officials say.
Counselors in the substance abuse unit of Fresno County's Juvenile Justice Center say they notice more teens who say they are addicted to prescription painkillers.
"In the last two or three years, we have seen a 20% increase in minors reporting the use of Vicodin and OxyContin, especially OxyContin," said Susan Murdock, who heads the unit.
Most are from Clovis and north Fresno, Murdock said. They report swiping the drugs from relatives or stealing money so they can buy the pills, which can cost $40 on the street.
Although officials say prescription drug abuse by teens has climbed, there have been no local surveys conducted over the years to track it.
But last year -- for the first time -- the California Healthy Kids Survey included questions about prescription painkiller abuse.
Seventeen percent of Fresno County's 11th-graders and 13% of the county's 9th-graders reported they had used prescription painkillers to get high at least once. The same percentages were reported statewide for 11th- and 9th-graders.
Prescription painkillers and similar drugs were added to the latest survey because school administrators told the state Department of Education it was a growing drug trend, said T. Kiku Annon, a researcher with WestEd, which produces the survey.
Nationwide, treatment recovery admissions for prescription drug abuse for all Americans rose from 2.2% to 9.8% between 1998 and 2008. Among teens, 5.2% of admissions were for prescription painkillers, nearly a ninefold increase from 1998, said the study by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. A similar increase occurred for addicts ages 18 to 24, the study reported.
Clovis police officials and drug treatment counselors say prescription drug abuse rose fast over the past decade but has been leveling off.
Parental awareness has helped combat the problem, said George Rodriguez, a social worker with the Clovis Police Department.
Many people have only recently become more aware that prescription drugs -- particularly OxyContin -- are powerfully addictive and easy to get, he said.
"People became more and more alarmed when they learned that kids were getting addicted," Rodriguez said.
Cameron Hicks, a former two-sport athlete at Buchanan High, said his prescription drug addiction started accidentally when he was being treated for a mid-season high school sports injury.
Hicks, now 25 and living in Boise, Idaho, said he already had dabbled with marijuana and alcohol when he was prescribed painkillers, which he thought he could safely take. But his addiction soon took over.
"By the time I was 19 or 20, I had five different doctors writing me 12 or 15 prescriptions a month and [was] going to different pharmacies," he said.
Over time, he became desperate. He was jailed for theft, overdosed on heroin in a train station bathroom and was revived with an adrenalin shot.
Hicks has been clean for 21/2 years. Today, he speaks to young people about drugs he took and the physical toll it has taken, including a high susceptibility to cancer.
Young people often view drugs prescribed by doctors as safe and not potentially addictive, said a Stanislaus County drug agent who teaches law enforcement officers about how to conduct prescription drug investigations.
"A lot of them don't realize that the medications they are taking are all opium-type drugs, the same drug heroin is made from," said agent Jeff Godfrey, a nationally recognized prescription drug expert. "Once they get strung out and need a drug to feed their addiction, the next step is street-level heroin. It's something we are seeing more from kids in their late teens and early 20s."
And sometimes with deadly results.
Josh Row's drug addiction started with cough syrup while he was a student at Kastner Intermediate in northeast Fresno.
During his high school years, he completed two treatment programs but couldn't shake his addiction. His drug of choice then was OxyContin.
His third treatment program seemed to result in recovery, said Cathy Klassen, his mother. Row, a promising musician, was accepted to a Hollywood music school; his parents found him an apartment there.
"We saw a transformation," she said of his recovery. "For the first time in years, we saw our son again."
But last March, Klassen found the body of her 20-year-old son in his apartment, the victim of a heroin overdose.
Heroin, which costs as little as $10, is the cheap opiate alternative to OxyContin.
Because of the higher cost for prescription drugs, those addicts tend to live in affluent areas where families are more likely to be able to afford health insurance and the medications, said Flindt Andersen, a recovering addict who heads Fresno-based Prescription Abusers In Need.
Andersen said he has spoken about prescription drug abuse to 70,000 students in the Valley during the past year and also meets with small parent groups, including a support group at a church about a mile from Buchanan High School in Clovis.
Parents need to pay close attention to their children's activities by searching bedrooms and scouring Facebook, e-mails and telephone messages, he said.
Said Andersen: "You can't be afraid to be the bad guy."
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