February 26, 2014 - A screening of a documentary last week at Lindbergh High School on prescription drug abuse among teenagers mostly drew a crowd of parents and teens who have been directly affected by overdose and addiction, but they said the dangers of prescription drugs are something every parent should hear.
After the Feb. 19 screening, Sgt. Mark Whitson, supervisor of the St. Louis County Police Department's Bureau of Drug Enforcement, said prescription drug abuse is a major problem in the county, but flies under the radar since people tend to view prescription drugs as harmless medicine, rather than a direct gateway to heroin.
The short documentary "Out of Reach," created by Texas high school student Cyrus Stowe, shows Cyrus's friends discussing their experiences abusing prescription drugs.
The Centers for Disease Control calls overdose a growing epidemic that kills more young people than car accidents, with statistics showing that most of those deaths are due to prescription drugs.
As of last week, St. Anthony's Medical Center has treated 65 overdoses so far this year, an average of more than one a day. St. Anthony's emergency room physician Alvin James told the Call that overdoses have increased over the last decade, likely due to the increased availability of heavy-duty prescription painkillers that function like heroin.
"Prescription narcotic use is a huge problem," he said. "I think people outside of medicine really have no idea how bad it is. On a given day, 20 to 30 percent of my (emergency room) visits may be narcotic-related, whether that's narcotic refills, seeking drugs to treat the addiction, overdose or intentional and unintentional complications."
Prescription drug abuse is closely tied to heroin abuse, since these days four out of five heroin addicts get started by abusing prescription drugs like Vicodon or Oxycontin that are opiates similar to heroin - then move to the cheaper high of street heroin when their access to the prescription drug they are now addicted to is cut off.
"We really have a perception problem with this. If you think about a drug like heroin — they don't buy it at Walgreens, do they? Typically, you think of a needle," said Jared Opsal of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, or NCADA, at the Lindbergh screening.
"Where do you buy Vicodin at? Walgreens. You get it from a doctor, someone you trust. What people don't realize is these are nearly the same drug. Heroin is nearly identical to Vicodin — they're both opiates, and they both come from the same plant, and they're both dangerous and cause a lot of people to die from this."
Roughly 100 people attended the screening, which was sponsored by NCADA and community group StepUp!, which promotes awareness of prescription drug abuse in the Lindbergh Schools area.
During a question-and-answer session with the panel, an audience member said she works with addicted teens in Heroin Anonymous, and some of them first started abusing prescription drugs after they were legitimately prescribed painkillers like Vicodin.
"They got hooked on Vicodin after they had their wisdom teeth taken out," she said.
Lindbergh High School Principal Andy Croley said the documentary opened his eyes to the problem of prescription drug abuse, and he wants to conduct a screening of it for teachers at the high school.
"People brought up some good questions," he said. "So I'm looking now at how to duplicate that experience we had the other night for my staff so they ask those same questions and we figure out how to move on some next steps."
Missouri is the only state that does not have a prescription drug registry aimed at preventing addicts from "doctor shopping" to get prescriptions for the same painkiller from different doctors and repeatedly buying it from different pharmacies, which contributes to deaths on this side of the river, panelists said.
One of the first steps people can take to prevent any abuse of their own legitimately prescribed medications is to lock up the medications, the panel noted. Two teenage Oxycontin addicts shown in the film said they took the drug from their sick parents' supply.
Lindbergh Board of Education member Kate Holloway said she was shocked by part of the documentary, in which a teenager said he and his friends host parties where they bring all the prescription drugs they can find from home and then take random pills from the assorted drugs.
"What struck me is that these teenagers are gathering medications, pouring them in a bowl and eating them like Skittles. That's frightening, that's such a dangerous thing," she said. "Wouldn't there be some definite symptoms a teacher could pretty much call them out on?"
Although heroin addiction does have some signs, such as sleepiness and changes in behavior and friends, they are not as physically obvious as a teenager who has been drinking alcohol. Parents present whose children are heroin addicts said the signs of abuse were there in hindsight, but they can be difficult to pinpoint in the moment since they also coincide with signs of general teenage moodiness.
Sarah McIntyre founded Mothers Against Heroin after her son, Tommy, 23, died of an overdose last May.
"I lost my oldest son to opiate addiction," she said. "For the lady that asked, 'How can you know?' I didn't think my son was on opiates. I did not know what to look for — you just think they're belligerent kids ... It's never too young to start talking to your kids (about the dangers). If they're aware of opiates and what it does, then you have a chance of saving them."
Tommy overdosed while with other people, who left him in the street rather than risk getting caught by police with their own heroin.
McIntyre and Mothers Against Heroin are working in the Missouri Legislature to pass the Good Samaritan Bill, Senate Bill 831, which grants immunity from prosecution to drug users who call police to save a fellow user from overdose. If an opiate overdose is caught early, it can be reversed. For a short time after an overdose, the prescription drug Narcan can save the person's life, pulling the drug off opiate receptors and allowing the person who overdosed to breathe again.
New St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar agrees with former Chief Tim Fitch that county police should carry Narcan in their cars. The cost to equip every police car, at 27 cents a dose, would be about $1,500, and several private donors have offered to foot the cost. State law would have to change, however, since Narcan is a prescription drug.