You might recognize Ann Le Veille of Danville because so many of us are like her. She is a devoted mom who has focused almost all of her time on her family. She volunteered in her children’s schools, chauffeured her kids to their many activities, and was active in her church. Still in love with the man she’d married decades before, she thought she had the perfect life. And then her teenage daughter got hooked on prescription pain medications, and Le Veille realized nothing would ever be the same.
"Chelsea was a happy, social girl in elementary and middle school. Then she hit high school, and soon things began to change. The pressure to get top grades, to be popular, to be on the fast track for admission to a top college was overwhelming," Le Veille says. So, she took her daughter to a doctor who prescribed Klonopin for Chelsea’s anxiety. Little did Le Veille know that would be the gateway drug to addiction.
The antianxiety medicine worked. Chelsea felt better, and things seemed to calm down. What Le Veille didn’t realize was that Chelsea liked the feeling of relief so much, she moved on to other pills, including Vicodin, Xanax, and finally, OxyContin. Soon, Chelsea’s grades were slipping, and she started hanging out with a new group of kids. "I knew something was wrong; I just didn’t understand what," Le Veille says.
Within about six months, Le Veille’s daughter became so addicted, she would do anything for the next high. Chelsea stole pills from friends’ parents’ medicine cabinets and from anyone who had a prescription, and when those sources dried up, she turned to dealers to keep her buzzing. She got caught stealing jewelry from a store to pay for her habit. After many unsuccessful attempts to get Chelsea off pills, Le Veille and her husband felt forced to throw her out of the house. Their beloved daughter ended up on the streets.
"The drugs won," says Le Veille. "The only way we could survive was if we went on without her. One of the worst days of my life was when I saw my ragged, barefoot daughter at a local gas station. She was living in the car of a friend, eating candy and potato chips to stay alive. I felt like I was in this movie of someone else’s life. I never dreamed it could happen to me."
It’s an Epidemic
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the rise of prescription drug abuse among teenagers is reaching alarming levels across our country. It’s an epidemic that has come to the East Bay suburbs as well.
Jose Marin, deputy district attorney for drug prosecution in Contra Costa County, says, "Over the last few years, we have seen a significant increase in pharmaceutical drug use among teenagers. Some of the most affluent cities in the area—Danville, San Ramon, Walnut Creek—are overflowing with kids abusing pills."
Dee Gagnon, admissions director at Thunder Road Adolescent Treatment Center in Oakland, which treats teenagers from both sides of the tunnel, says, "It’s not uncommon for the kids to host ‘pharmacy parties.’ They raid their parents’ or neighbors’ or grandparents’ medicine cabinets, and then share the spoils. Sometimes, the kids even dump the pills into bowls and scoop them up by the handful. They call it ‘Skittles.’ They don’t realize how dangerous it is to mix these powerful medications, particularly if alcohol is involved."
April Rovero believes her son, Joey, didn’t understand the danger. He was a soccer star and played football at California High in San Ramon. He graduated and went to Arizona State University to study business and communications. He joined a fraternity and made the dean’s list. Occasionally, Joey complained about all of the partying, but Rovero and her husband thought it was just the typical college scene, until she got a horrifying phone call one week before Christmas in 2009.
"Joey died in his sleep," says April. "The toxicology report said he had low levels of Xanax and moderate levels of OxyContin, and just over the legal limit of alcohol in his system. Separately, these levels of drugs couldn’t kill you. Together, they are a deadly combination."
It’s hard not to hear the suffering in Rovero’s voice when she shares her story. "You think you’ve done a good job: You’ve raised a wonderful son, sent him off into the next phase of his life, and then the unthinkable happens," she says. "The sad truth is, our story is not unique."
In fact, drug fatalities more than doubled among teens and young adults between 2000 and 2008. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in 2008, of the 36,450 overdose deaths in the United States, 20,044 involved a prescription drug—more than the total of deaths from all illicit drugs. For every death attributed to prescription painkillers, 130 people are believed to abuse or be dependent on the drugs and 825 are reported to be using them nonmedically.
"It’s an epidemic," says Linda Turnbull, executive director of Teen Esteem, a nonprofit that partners with high schools in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. "It used to be you could predict who might have a drug problem. These days, it could be any one of our children. Something has changed."
The Game Changer
It’s true; something has changed: both the type of the drugs and the type of kids who use them. When many of us were teenagers, we endured antidrug talks given by well-intentioned school counselors. The Just Say No campaign had been launched, and we were warned to stay away from marijuana, as it could lead us to try other illicit drugs.
Many kids today choosepills as their gateway to drug abuse, and the stakes are so much higher.
"It’s like playing with fire," says Lafayette’s Tim Browne, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist. "The kids use these drugs and don’t realize the implications for their health. First, there are the side effects and risks of taking a drug not prescribed for them. But more importantly, while most won’t become addicts, some will, and that is the Russian roulette of addiction."
The 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) revealed that nearly one-third of people ages 12 and over who tried drugs for the first time began by using a prescription drug nonmedically. Their drug of choice? Some started with a stimulant such as Ritalin or Adderall. The kids buy or bum pills off their friends who are prescribed these ADHD medications. The medicine gives a person without ADHD an intense ability to focus, allowing the students to stay up all night to study and ace their exams the next day.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, "study drugs" are all the rage in affluent communities across the country. Children are looking for any edge to get ahead. A pill prescribed by a doctor? How could it hurt?
April Rovero believes her son, Joey, started with study drugs. She says, "He told me he tried them to help him focus. He said everyone was doing them." She doesn’t know how the path from an occasional use of Adderall led to abusing Xanax, OxyContin, and other prescription drugs, but 19-year-old Stephen Haydon of Walnut Creek thinks he does. He’s a recovering addict who speaks out about drug abuse as part of his recovery.
"You take one pill to get up, to focus, to get the job done. But then, you need something to relax you, to calm you down, so you take another pill. Next thing you know, upper, downer, upper, downer. It’s a slippery slope to addiction," he warns.
Marriage and family therapist Jason Lechner of Walnut Creek sees it in his practice every day. "The problem with drugs is they work. If I take a few Vicodin and I feel wonderful, I’ll want to take it again. We turn to drugs as a quick fix or a coping mechanism rather than deal with the underlying issue that is stressing us out."
The Consequence of the Race to Nowhere?
Just what is stressing kids out? Vicki Abeles, producer and codirector of the documentary film Race to Nowhere, will tell you, "It is our fast-paced society that is focused on doing rather than being." She adds, "We have a perfect storm between the rise of stress-based schooling and the rise of pharmaceutical drug availability. The result is our children are being challenged at levels like never before and are looking to both enhance their performance and relieve their pressure." She says the kids use these drugs like an "academic steroid," and they don’t understand the risks they face.
"While we were filming our documentary, a number of the kids revealed they felt too much pressure and found ways to get their hands on study drugs. In one case, a girl we interviewed ended up in the emergency room because she was having trouble breathing. When the doctor asked if she was taking any medication, it didn’t even occur to her to tell him she was taking Adderall because she hadn’t been prescribed the drug herself," says Abeles.
Study drugs are one avenue to abuse, but Browne says he thinks most kids who become addicts are looking to cope with the stresses of their lives, not enhance their academic performance or just get high. For most, the pill of choice is Vicodin. A 2011 report by the University of Michigan’s ongoing Monitoring the Future study of adolescents found that, after marijuana, Vicodin was the second most abused drug.
Kyle Rooks of Danville is a recovering addict. He says the challenge with Vicodin is, "You fall in love with the feeling, and that leads you to other opioids like Percocet and OxyContin. But they are expensive, and over time the high isn’t as strong. Before you know it, you’re using heroin."
Yep, you read that right. According to the SAMHSA, first-time use of heroin is up 65 percent since 2002. Gagnon of Thunder Road says her center has seen a noticeable increase in the number of kids addicted to heroin in the past six months.
"These are children who in their wildest fantasies never imagined they could become addicts. Our image of a junkie is some down-and-out person living on the street, not an athlete from suburbia," she says.
The New Face of Addiction
When most of us were in high school, the kids who did serious drugs loitered on the sidelines. They weren’t the jocks, the star students, the kids from good families headed to the best colleges. Sure, back then the "good" kids might have smoked a little pot, but hard drugs were too scary to touch, and only the really "bad" kids did them.
According to the 2009 World Drug Report by the United Nations, young people are taking pharmaceutical drugs because "these drugs may be more easily accessible and socially acceptable." The report goes on to say, "Many of the individuals using prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes do not participate in a subculture of illicit drug use, and would not otherwise experience problems with compulsive and harmful drug abuse." In essence, the new addict is the good kid of old.
"The problem can sneak up on you," says one Pleasanton mom who asked to be called only Donna. She and her son had weathered the typical high school dramas of occasional drinking and pot smoking, but he was a good student and a great athlete. Then, when he was a senior, he had his wisdom teeth taken out. The dentist prescribed Vicodin for the pain, and soon Donna’s son was hooked.
"Within a few months, he went from popping the occasional Vicodin for pain relief to crushing and smoking OxyContin multiple times a day," says Donna. When he couldn’t afford to keep using the drugs, Donna’s son started stealing money from her and her husband. The street cost of one OxyContin pill is $80–$100.
"My son’s addiction ran him into hundreds of dollars a day," says Donna. "It got so bad, he even sold his belongings to get a fix. It was the worst kind of hell to watch my son spiral from good kid to addict."
Browne of Lafayette understands. His practice is filled with so-called good kids whose parents believed their children were on the right track, until they weren’t anymore.
"These medicines are manufactured by FDA–approved companies and prescribed by doctors, so the kids think they must be safe. The pills are easy to find. Just look in the family medicine cabinet: It’s a veritable pharmacy. The truth is, we have become a pill culture. It’s no surprise kids are abusing these drugs."
Open any magazine or watch television for half an hour, and you will be inundated with advertisements for some pharmaceutical drug or other. We are told if we just take this drug, our problems will be solved. We’re told the same is true for our children. From 2002 to 2010, the use of ADHD drugs grew by 46 percent—to some 800,000 prescriptions a year. The top drug dispensed to adolescents was Ritalin, with nearly two million prescriptions filled in 2010.
As Browne says, "We have taught our children that taking a pill will enhance their performance or solve their problems. The kids think if it works for my friend, maybe it will work for me."
The 2009 NSDUH found that among people ages 12 and older who reported using pain relievers nonmedically in the past year, 70 percent got the drugs from a friend or relative. Most of these drugs were shared freely, some were purchased, and some were stolen right from the bottles of pills left over from Mom or Dad’s recent knee replacement, or some minor medical event.
Le Veille says her daughter, Chelsea, stole pills from the parent of a friend. "The pill bottle was in the medicine cabinet. It was easy for Chelsea to grab a couple here and there. The woman had no idea, and I completely understand that. It never dawned on me to hide my medications. Now, I tell everyone to keep their medicines under lock and key, or to dispose of the unused ones. Most of us don’t realize it’s just too tempting for these kids."
Stolen from unsuspecting adults or not, the drugs are prevalent at area schools. Between 2008 and 2011, when Kyle Rooks was a student at Monte Vista High, "It was easy to get whatever pill you wanted," he says. "All you had to do was walk down the corridor to get your next high. I knew who had what, and if they didn’t have it, I knew who to call at one of the other local high schools. Pills are everywhere, and there’s not much the schools can do about it."
According to Kevin Johnson, senior director of pupil services for the Pleasanton school district, "If a teenager wants to find drugs, he will. But we have placed a renewed emphasis on reducing drugs on campus." The district has partnered with the Pleasanton Police Department to use trained police dogs to sniff out illicit drugs. But the dogs cannot sniff out all pills. Not only are pills harder to find, but their use is harder to detect.
Pleasanton Superintendent Parvin Ahmadi says, "We’ve initiated a number of measures to combat this problem. But, it is much more difficult to prove someone has taken a Vicodin illegally compared to someone who has abused alcohol or marijuana. It is so invisible."
Teen Esteem’s Turnbull says, "We all want to blame the schools, but they are doing everything they can to educate students and parents on this issue. It’s like swimming against a tidal wave. We need to step up, acknowledge the problem, and stop the pills from coming into our children’s lives."
The New Drug Cartels
The source for pharmaceutical drugs in our communities starts with the doctors who prescribe them. According to the CDC, roughly 80 percent of painkillers are prescribed by roughly 20 percent of prescribers. Certain doctors are well known by addicts as "friendlies," professionals who will prescribe narcotics with little or no medical indication.
Joey Rovero drove from Arizona to Los Angeles to visit just such a doctor. With no real injury, he managed to get prescriptions for 30 pills of Xanax, 90 pills of a muscle relaxer called Soma, and 90 pills of oxycodone. He paid cash for all of them.
"That is not unusual," says Jose Marin. "In Contra Costa alone, we have numerous cases against ‘dirty doctors,’ who are abusing the system for their
In Alameda County, District Attorney Nancy E. O’Malley has set up a task force to focus on doctors who prescribe pills unnecessarily and then bill the insurance companies, a profitable practice until they are caught. Her office has received a $3.2 million grant to focus on insurance fraud.
According to Bob Hartman, deputy D.A. in charge of the unit, there are many cases under investigation.
Hartman says, "We need to stop these bottom-feeders from harming our children."
But most doctors aren’t out to scam the system. Many unwittingly play into the problem. Doctor shopping among addicts is common, according to Hartman. The drug abuser will go from doctor to doctor, complaining of pain or anxiety. The doctors unknowingly prescribe him medication; the abuser funds his addiction by selling some of his pills to others.
In some cases, the medical staff is the culprit. Contra Costa is prosecuting a number of people who stole prescription pads and forged a doctor’s signature. Marin says, "The doctor may not know anything is amiss until the pharmacy calls to ask why so many prescriptions are being written for painkillers."
Nora Talebi of Danville has been a practicing pharmacist for 26 years. She sees signs of abuse every day. "Pharmacists are the funnel between the pharmaceutical companies, the doctors, and the patients," she says. Talebi works with doctors to ensure they are aware their patients might be abusing their prescribed medications.
She also believes she has an obligation to inform parents that their children are at risk when prescribed a narcotic painkiller. "In most cases, parents don’t have a full understanding of the implications of giving their children something as seemingly innocuous as a few Vicodin after their wisdom teeth are removed. We need to get informed."
While Marin admits that not all doctors are dirty, his anger flares when he considers the overall situation.
"Everyone is on the take," he says. "The drug manufacturers, the doctors, the pharmacies, and the dealers. We used to battle the illegal drug cartels. Now, pills are the drug of choice, and a sanctioned system is in place to dispense them. The issue is that most people just aren’t aware of the complexity and depth of the problem."
How You Can Help
Don’t want to be an unwitting supplier? Here are five ways to keep drugs out of kids’ hands.
1. Ask your doctor for the fewest pills required when prescribed medication. You can always get a refill.
2. Keep potentially dangerous medications out of the wrong hands—and help save the environment—by properly disposing of your extra and expired medications. For a drop-off location near you, visit sfenvironment.org/recyclewhere.
3. Do not leave your medications out in the open. Keep them in a secure location.
4. Dole out your child’s medication rather than letting him or her keep the bottle. This prevents your child from selling or giving pills to friends and classmates.
5. Keep track of the number of pills you have been prescribed to be sure none suddenly disappears. Same goes for medication prescribed to your children.
Think your child might have a problem? Here are three local resources.
Thunder Road Treatment Center, thunderroadtreatment.org.
National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse, ncapda.org.
Mothers With a Purpose, motherswithapurpose.org.
Moving Beyond Denial and Shame
"It isn’t just lack of information," says Turnbull. "We all live behind this veneer of our perfect little lives, particularly in affluent communities. No one wants to admit there could be a problem. And when there is, we hunker down and hide."
Donna from Pleasanton can relate. Once an avid runner and regular at her gym, Donna watched everything she knew vanish in that puff of pharmaceutical smoke that was favored by her son. "My health, my friendships, my marriage, even my will to live was challenged because of my son’s addiction," says Donna.
She felt isolated, alone, the brunt of vicious gossip, until Kelly, the mother of a boy her son knew in high school, called Donna out of the blue. Kelly had heard about Donna’s trouble and said, "We’ve got to talk." When they met, Donna learned that Kelly, too, had been "living in hell."
Kelly’s son, an honor roll student at a high school in the Tri-Valley, had become addicted to pills. She became aware of his addiction when he was in college.
"We were so proud of our son. We thought he was launched. It never dawned on us he would become a drug addict, of all things," she says.
Now, she and Donna are working to create awareness of the real risks of teenage pharmaceutical drug abuse. They started an organization called Mothers With a Purpose and have spoken to schools, parents, community groups, and anyone else who will listen.
Additionally, they are working closely with the Pleasanton School District to develop meaningful education programs. But they say the most important work is in offering support to other parents who unexpectedly find themselves and their families struggling to battle this new kind of drug addiction.
"No mother should have to go through what I have," says Donna. "Something has to change."
April Rovero and her family launched the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse to fight for change. They have embarked on a nationwide awareness campaign and have partnered with local and national organizations to advocate on the legislative and judicial fronts.
"Too many of our children are dying," Rovero says. "It is time to get our heads out of the sand, speak up, and fight against this tragic epidemic. Yes, I’m doing it for Joey, but I am also doing it because it’s the right thing to do. We need to be open and honest with each other, and ourselves, before it’s too late."
The good news is that it’s not too late for Chelsea. Le Veille says, "The toughest decision I ever made was calling the police on my daughter." She credits Contra Costa probation officer Rita Dreher with helping Chelsea finally get on the path toward becoming clean and sober.
Today, Chelsea is home and rebuilding her life. "It’s hard to believe I went from worrying about what college Chelsea would get in to, to wondering whether she was alive," says Le Veille. "These days, we aren’t on the ‘race to nowhere’ anymore. Now, we look for ways to slow down and live in the moment. I’m so grateful I have my daughter back."