Natalie started abusing prescription drugs at 14 with a Vicodin caplet her friend had pilfered from her mother's medicine cabinet.
It wasn't long before the Rockland County, N.Y., girl, now 16, was taking two pills during third period and another one before the end of the school day, she said.
When she checked into High Focus Center, a substance abuse and mental illness treatment center in Paramus, N.J., almost four months later, Natalie had tried Vicodin, Xanax and Ambien, and was selling her Adderall, which she was prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for $2 a pill, she said.
Law enforcement officials, anti-drug advocates and substance abuse counselors say prescription drug abuse is on the rise. And the habit can be ruinous and potentially fatal.
The problem has become so widespread that the White House made curbing it a goal of the 2010 National Drug Control Strategy released this month. It recognized prescription drug abuse as being the "fastest-growing drug problem in the United States."
"It's highly addictive and it has the effect of being able to ruin lives," said Detective Capt. Robert Rowan of the Clifton, N.J., Police Department, whose office recently participated in a yearlong prescription painkiller drug sting with the Passaic County, N.J., Prosecutor's Office.
Brian Gamarello, the managing director of Daytop New Jersey's Mendham center, which treats youths 13 to 18 years old who have substance abuse problems, said prescription drugs are now the gateway drugs in the same way alcohol and marijuana once were.
"What we have been seeing over the past year or so is that more kids have come in, not necessarily addicted to prescription drugs, but they have been using prescription drugs with more frequency, particularly the kids who come in who are addicted to heroin," Gamarello said.
Of the 167 clients admitted to the Mendham Daytop facility in the year beginning July 1, 2007, 23 were admitted for prescription drug use, Gamarello said. The following year, 48 of the 208 clients were admitted for prescription drug use. Forty-three of the 190 clients admitted since July 1 have been using prescription drugs, he said.
Douglas Collier, an agent with the New Jersey division of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, described prescription drug abuse as an "insidious" problem for local, county and federal law enforcement officials.
"It's now in your home," he told a group of parents in a two-hour presentation recently at Pascack Hills High School, as a part of a program titled "Pharming in the Garden State: What Parents Need to Know About Prescription Drug Abuse."
Prescription drug abuse refers to taking prescription medication for non-medical reasons. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, approximately 20 percent of Americans have done just that.
Availability is a big part of the problem, Collier said. Teenagers and young adults have to look no further than their parents' or their friends' parents' medicine cabinets, he said.
"The prescription drugs that adolescents are getting - you are facilitating," he told the parents. "We have it in our medicine cabinets."
"The new drug dealer is not the guy in the ghetto," said Janice Georgallas, regional student assistance coordinator at the Pascack Valley Regional High School district. "The new drug dealer is the Internet. You can go online and buy Vicodin, Ritalin, all different kinds of drugs on the Internet."
There is also less of a stigma in obtaining and using the prescription drugs, she said.
Collier also blames the cultural acceptance of pharmaceuticals.
"That's the society we've become - the takers," he said. "The attitude ... is that there is a pill for everything. We have a headache, we have a tummy ache, we have whatever ache you have ... there is a pill for that."
The DEA is aggressively going after "rogue" doctors and pharmacists, Collier said.
He added that the three worst words a parent can say are: "Not my child."
Gamarello, at Daytop, said parents should remain alert and engaged.
The first thing they would notice is that their pills are missing, Gamarello said.
"They would certainly notice a change in behavior, some kind of withdrawal from activities their kids were involved in, failing grades, cutting classes, a disinterest in family activities ... a change in friends, basic changes in social activities. Maybe they went out and went to the movies, maybe they played sports, and now they are going to someone's house for a party."
Parents should have a conversation with their children about what they are witnessing, talk to a counselor at school and have their children evaluated.
"The really important thing is for them just to be involved and not ignore signs," Gamarello said.
Natalie went into rehab after what she described as an Ambien-fueled "day of hell." Her friends had already threatened to cut her off because of her drug use. A week later, the thought of losing those friends drove her to enroll in an intensive outpatient rehabilitation program, she said.
Natalie has been clean for nearly two years, she said.
She is earning good grades, but her overall grade-point average may not be high enough for her to get into the school she wants to attend, she said.
Still, she talks to groups about her struggles in the hope that she will help save someone, she says. She attends alumni meetings once a week and a several 12-step programs a week.
"I get to share where I was and where I am now to try to give kids hope," she said.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times