FAIRMONT - Prescription pills are being abused more and more by adults and teens. What makes it more dangerous is that today's medications are as powerful as an illicit street drug, and most of the time they can be found in the family medicine cabinet.
On Monday, a panel consisting of Fairmont Police Officer Jaime Bleess, Winnebago adolescent treatment center representative Naomi Ochsendorf, and Dr. Jeffrey Green of the Fairmont Medical Center tackled the issues of prescription pill abuse and the newest option to dispose of unused medications.
"It's easy to feel more comfortable taking prescription pills because they do come from a doctor," Green said. "They have a good purpose when they are used appropriately, but when you get into misuse, when these medications are not taken appropriately and for a long enough time, people can become dependent on them. ... Good people can get hooked on pain medications."
Some of the most abused prescriptions are painkillers, such as OxyContin and Vicodin. Another type of medication that is commonly abused is for attention deficit disorders.
"We have seen some abuse in the schools," said Bleess, a school resource officer. "It's not every day, or even every week. But pills are small and easy to conceal."
Bleess said surveys both in Fairmont and nationwide indicate about 20 percent of teens age 12 to 17 have taken a prescription medication that was not prescribed for them.
"This number is on the rise because of the easy access," Bleess said. "It's easy enough to go into a bathroom and look in the medicine cabinet."
Some other statistics Bleess used included how youth admitted to illegally accessing prescriptions. A majority (55 percent) said they got them from a friend or relative. About 19 percent said they got a prescription from a doctor, 15 percent said they stole or paid a friend for them, and only three percent said they purchased medication from a drug dealer.
Ochsendorf said the adolescent treatment facility has seen addicts as young as 12 in their facility, with the average age being between 14 and 16 years old. Ochsendorf said about 9 out of 10 of those juveniles have at least tried a prescription drug they weren't prescribed.
"It's not a different high from illegal drugs, but it's more accessible," she said.
Symptoms of prescription pill abuse are the same as other drug abuses, Ochsendorf said. Red flags include grades or job performance slips, changes in eating and sleeping habits and secretive behavior about activities and friends. Specifically for prescription pill abuse, parents should watch for missing medications or money, or suddenly losing things of value.
Other tell-tale signs are increased tolerance, when a user has to take more pills to obtain the same high; suffering withdrawal symptoms from trying to quit; or frequent attempts to control use.
"By the time we see them, they've already tried to stop several times on their own and failed," Ochsendorf said.
Another sign of addiction is when a person is still using in spite of harmful consequences.
"For some, they get that one ticket, or get caught and it's enough to make them want to quit," she said. "But some don't stop no matter how many tickets they get or if they lose their job or end up in jail."
"The abuse of medications is a symptom of something else," Green said. "People medicate themselves because they're feeling uncomfortable about something; they're not happy in their own skin. ... It's important we see as community members positive interactions with youth. As parents, it's surprising that when you catch your children doing something right, and you encourage that positive behavior, they want to do right. They want you to be proud of them."
Plans being pushed to curb prescription pill abuse include statewide and nationwide databases showing sales of controlled substances; and attempts by the medical industry to educate more people about prescribing medications when appropriate.
"There's also a push to avoid chronic opiate use," Green said.
When discussing what to do with these medications so they don't fall into the wrong hands, it's clear the medicine cabinet is no longer a safe place.
"They're safe from the little kids, but it's the ones who are big enough to open the medicine cabinet that you need to worry about," Bleess said.
If the worries are simply from family friends, acquaintances or visitors, Bleess suggests simply moving them from the bathroom to the bedroom, or a bathroom that doesn't have visitor access.
"I know if my children's friends come over, they may use the bathroom, but they aren't going to be in my bedroom," he said.
Another option is having a small safe to keep them locked away.
But when the medication is no longer needed or wanted, that's when it's time to "Take It To The Box."
"We hear a lot of how we can't flush them down the toilet anymore, or just throw them out with the coffee grounds because these chemicals are turning up in the ground water," Bleess said.
The "Take It To The Box" program was inspired by Rice and Chisago counties. A large mailbox-like container is now set up in the law enforcement center for people to dispose of their unwanted medications. These pills will eventually be destroyed at a facility in St. Louis, Mo.
When disposing of medications, it's preferred if they are kept in the original pill bottles, with the drug information, but personal information like names and addresses can be torn off or marked out.
"When these boxes started in Rice and Chisago counties, they were taking in about 90 pounds of pills a month," Bleess said. "We're probably going to see similar results; we could be getting 90 pounds of pills off the street every month."