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The number of opioid-related deaths in the state has fallen for the first time in 15 years, according to new data. But heroin and prescription painkiller addiction is still killing at least one person a day in Massachusetts — 594 in 2008. Addiction often starts at home, where young people are turning to their medicine cabinets. So I thought I'd see what's in my own medicine cabinet.
Behind some aspirin, on the very top shelf, there was some Hydrocodone. That's a powerful narcotic — an opiate — that's used for severe or moderate pain and is often given for things like a back strain or maybe after surgery. I also had some Cyclobenzone, a muscle relaxant.
"We are medicine hoarders," said Michael Botticelli, the director of the state’s Bureau of Substance Abuse. "We like to put unused medication in our medicine cabinet and keep it there for future use.
"People have these medications, they get them as legitimate prescription from a physician and then they give diverted," he said. "Prescription drug abuse is an epidemic of the medicine cabinet."
“Pain pills, ADHD pills, anxiety — anything that you can abuse you can find.”Brian Sneider, former teen user
According to Botticelli, national statistics show that if someone were to try a drug for the first time, they are choosing to abuse a prescription drug over marijuana, which for years was the gateway drug.
"And that’s a game-changer," he said, "because we are talking about a tremendously addictive drug with unfortunately huge lethal consequences."
This trend is predominately affecting white teens in the suburbs and in cities. It came to light in September after an apparent drug-related homicide in Waltham. Seventeen-year-old Benjamin Peirce, a senior at Newton North High School, is charged with murder and armed robbery. He allegedly planned to steal Percocet from the victim, a reported drug dealer.
Percocet is a narcotic like the Hydrocodone I have in my medicine cabinet. It’s a common choice for teens, says Michael Falzerano, an 18-year-old former drug addict from Ashland.
"When I sometimes came home drunk, usually my parents would immediately know because of the smell and because of the way I acted," Falzerano said. "And on prescription pills it's much easier to mask. Your eyes aren’t really dilated as much, and you smell like alcohol whereas with a pill you don’t really smell like anything."
Falzerano says kids sell pills they find at home to other teens because it’s hard to buy alcohol if you are under 21. And if your parents' cabinet is bare, Falzerano’s friend, Brian Sneider — also a former drug user — says there’s always the Internet.
"You can have them imported straight from any countries without any questions asked," Sneider said. "Pain pills, ADHD pills, anxiety — anything that you can abuse you can find."
Sneider and Falzerano are both in a drug rehab program called New Beginnings in Framingham. It’s run by guidance counselor Bill Phillips.
"You’d be surprised how many pills are in school," Phillips said. "Because it’s not on your breath, it doesn’t show for the most part until later on, and you gotta understand right now, when kids get addicted to something, it happens real quick."
And the drugs are very powerful, Phillips says.
"Oxycontin, I mean, you are going to heaven and two or three hours later, you’re talking to the devil, so that dope dealer wants these guys back here," he said. "It’s all about guns and butter. Drug people on the street want that access. They want these people and every school, there’s somebody around the school."
Because prescription drugs are easy to get, many teens feel they aren’t “hardcore” like cocaine and heroine, says Gary Sinclair, who runs a drop-in center for at-risk kids in Newton.
"I think the fact that it’s a prescription, maybe the kids feel safer," Sinclair said, "maybe safer again knowing that it’s in a home medicine cabinet...that it’s not a street drug. At least they can have some confidence it really is what it says it is and that it’s pure."
Sinclair says all the kids at the center know someone who is abusing drugs, even in a community like Newton, with alternatives and affluence.
"I think we are seeing it in many communities across the commonwealth so this is not necessarily just confined to our major metro areas, but we're also seeing it in western Massachusetts," Botticelli said. "We are seeing it on the South Shore, we are seeing it on the North Shore. So we are seeing it in communities where we haven’t historically seen high rates of opiate addiction."
Like Newton, for instance. Peirce, the Newton North senior, is now being held without bail for the murder that was allegedly related to stealing prescription drugs. Through a lawyer, he and his family declined to comment. The Middlesex County district attorney says Peirce pocketed the Percocet as the drug dealer was dying on the ground from a gunshot wound.
This program aired on December 8, 2010.
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