Rx for trouble: Drugs take root in suburbs

From left, former assistant clinic director Michelle Rolle, From left, former assistant clinic director Michelle Rolle, clinic director Rebecca Melendez and counselor Carey Wardell talk about trends in prescription drug abuse at the Lexington Center for Recovery in Mount Kisco. (March 13, 2012) Photo Credit: Angela Gaul

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The teenage years were a blur for Scott, now a recovering prescription-drug abuser.

At Somers High School, Jaguars, BMWs and Mercedeses filled the parking lot outside, said Scott, who asked that his last name not be disclosed to preserve his privacy. Meanwhile, inside, students with wads of cash ran a virtual drug bazaar. In one class, he recalled, a girl would crush prescription pills, wait until the teacher turned her back, and snort the line of powder off a science textbook.

During the 2005-2006 academic year, after Scott broke his ankle and hobbled to school on crutches, fellow students -- nicknamed Tuskers -- would approach him, asking for his extra painkillers. Scott and a friend who broke his collarbone playing football would down Percocet in chemistry class.

All the while, school authorities were largely blind to the transactions, Scott said, as students used mobile phone texts to set up deals, employed code words like "candy" to mask their messages, and gave drug stashes to friends when they feared an impending search.

"It's so easy to hide," he said. "You can just text it. You don't have to talk about it."

Prescription drugs may have flowed through the halls of Somers High, but the school is far from alone in grappling with abuse. The costly pills circulate in well-heeled neighborhoods throughout Westchester and the Hudson Valley where a culture of indulgence, stealth and ready money make a treacherous mix.

Somers Central School District officials said that though they can't respond to the specific instances of abuse cited by Scott, they are working hard to counter the drug culture.

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For instance, the district conducted a survey of students in sixth to 12th grades to identify their social assets -- responsible people such as coaches or grandparents -- who could be a bulwark against "risk-taking behavior," said Scott Persampieri, the school district's director of personnel and instructional services.

Counseling programs were extended to the elementary level. The district also developed a coalition of representatives from government, parents, law enforcement and other stakeholders.

"It's a community issue," Persampieri said.

It's clear, though, that the prescription drug problem can be found far beyond Somers High.

Veneer of respectability

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Helping to foster the spread of prescription drugs in Westchester and the lower Hudson Valley, drug counselors and users say, is a culture that views heroin as a high for street criminals, whereas drugs like OxyContin and Percocet, prescribed and manufactured by professionals, have a veneer of respectability. The line between doctor-authorized relief from pain or anxiety and recreational drug use can be maddeningly difficult to discern.

Michelle Rolle, former assistant clinic director at the Lexington Center for Recovery in Mount Kisco, pointed to economics and social-status concerns as factors fueling a prescription-drug culture in the affluent suburbs.

Injecting, or mainlining, heroin, carries a kick similar to some prescription painkillers, but also packs a heavy social stigma, she said. "You're a lowlife if you're actually injecting."

At the same time, the cost of prescription drugs -- OxyContin, a time-release version of oxycodone, can fetch $75 per pill on the street -- puts it beyond the reach of lower-income users.

And savvy abusers can easily research ailments designed to get a physician to write a prescription.

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"People can go on the Internet and find symptoms to recite to a doctor," said Rebecca Melendez, clinic director at Lexington.

Once they begin taking prescription drugs, the glide path toward addiction can be remarkably swift.

"The addiction is quick because you don't want to feel pain," said Marshall Fauntleroy, program director of Daytop Village's drug-treatment center in Hartsdale. "It becomes a way of life. You start taking them even when you're better because you don't want to start feeling pain."

Even at treatment facilities, abusers of prescription drugs "come in with a lot more denial," than street-drug addicts, said Carey Wardell, chemical dependency counselor at Lexington.

While marijuana, cocaine and alcohol remain the primary drugs of abuse seen at the Hartsdale facility, prescription drugs are on the rise.

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"Prescription addiction is definitely a growing problem," Fauntleroy said. "It's not No. 1 or No. 2, but it's definitely catching up."

Getting hooked

Scott was introduced to prescription drugs after breaking an ankle trying to skateboard down stairs at Mamaroneck High School.

It was the summer before he entered ninth grade. To ease the pain, Scott said, doctors at Northern Westchester Hospital prescribed 60 Percocets, a potent painkiller that combines oxycodone and the active ingredient of Tylenol, at a 5 mg. dosage. Then another doctor prescribed 60 or 70 Vicodin.

"I was in pain for a month," Scott said. "The pills lasted three or four months. I was just taking them recreationally. I definitely liked the way they made me feel. I wasn't the best student. I loved taking them to get through high school."

At 18, Scott was arrested for marijuana possession and entered Lexington as part of a sentencing arrangement. Though he stopped smoking pot, he said, another injury allowed him to continue taking painkillers.

Eventually, Scott, now 21, was weaned off prescription drugs, but developed an alcohol addiction and entered Lexington again in early February.

Another Lexington client, Eric, who asked that his middle name be used to "protect my parents and family's name," said he fell into addiction by following doctors' orders. In his first week at the University at Albany in September 2007, Eric was playing basketball when another player landed on his ankle.

The ankle broke and Eric, of South Salem, ended up taking Roxicet (an oxycodone and acetaminophen combination) painkillers as prescribed for three months when the bone didn't set properly.

The first day after the prescription ran out, Eric knew he was in trouble. "I remember I was sweaty and didn't feel good," he said.

Eric turned to his roommate, who recently had his wisdom teeth pulled, and asked for some painkillers.

"Instantly I felt better," he said.

To feed his habit, Eric, who entered Albany on a soccer scholarship, began collecting money from other students to make a bulk purchase of prescription drugs, allowing him to get his share at a reduced rate.

"That is how I started my habit."

Even when drug abusers recognize they have a problem, increasingly tight insurance requirements force them to delay treatment, said Wardell.

"Insurance is not coming for a lot of services," she said. "People are coming to us sicker with lots of problems."

With no telltale marijuana odor or injection marks, abusers of pharmaceutical drugs often can conceal their habits. "It's easy to put on a front with painkillers," Scott said.

Eric, now 22, hid his addiction from his family and many friends.

"For two-and-a-half, three years, it was me against whoever," he said.

Finally, when he was home in January 2011, he told his mother.

"I'm very addicted to these," Eric confessed.

Still, the road to recovery has many potholes. Eric is taking the opiate blocker Suboxone to control his addiction, but he acknowledged smoking marijuana two weeks before speaking to Newsday.

"I can't say I'm one hundred percent sober," he acknowledged. After that interview, Eric's lapses prompted Lexington to move him from an outpatient group to an in-hospital program.

Likewise Scott takes the bumpy road to recovery a step at a time. He said he has been clean since March 8. He makes daily calls to a "sponsor," who helps coach his recovery as part of Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step program.

At the same time, his many injuries and drug abuse have taken a toll.

"I feel like I'm 21 going on 65 . . . Life seems to move really fast."

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