April 30, 2007
Shira Hassan has read the research that says prescription drug use is up among young people.
But annual reports like the government-funded “Monitoring the Future” don’t often reflect what she sees working with 12- to 23-year-old women in Chicago’s sex trade, said Hassan, co-director of the Young Women’s Empowerment Project.
These young women don’t reflect the reported youth opiate craze, and painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin aren’t in unusually high demand.
“Spikes are media-driven,” said Hassan, whose group is rooted in the principles of harm reduction. “The spike is more of a spike in the research.”
Authors of the University of Michigan study, a composite of 50,000 8th-, 10th- and 12th-graders’ disclosures about their drug use, started asking about OxyContin and Vicodin in 2002. And 2006 was the first year they included questions about over-the-counter cold medicines, as though sippin’ on some [cough] syrup were brand new.
Last year, peer outreach workers with the Young Women’s Empowerment Project talked to more than 400 girls in the Chicago area who were trading sex for money or drugs. More than half of those conversations were about drug use.
What they’re using is what Hassan has seen consistently over the years: marijuana and alcohol are most prevalent, followed by crystal meth, heroin, ecstasy, powder cocaine and other club drugs.
“I haven’t met a kid who their primary passion is pills in a long time,” Hassan said.
Where prescription drugs like Xanax, Valium and Ativan do come into play is in combination with other drugs. These pills are benzodiazepines, the “downers” that calm the nerves or ward off a crash as the high from cocaine or meth subsides.
But if this is new to researchers, it isn’t to users.
“That’s been going on since the beginning of time,” Hassan said.
What is relatively new is recreational prescription drug use among the population university researchers can access easily: middle-class teenagers who go to school.
And among this group, yes, access to parents’ pain pills and the exchange of Adderall and other drugs prescribed for attention-deficit disorder and depression are increasingly common, said Marsha Rosenbaum, a medical sociologist and director of Drug Policy Alliance’s Safety First project.
The 2006 University of Michigan study reports that 9 percent of high school seniors had used a prescription narcotic in the previous year, compared to the just over 4 percent who had used ecstasy.