By Alex Gura
The three-eared drug sniffing dog caused Lizzie* ’12 to panic. After taking too many anti-anxiety pills at the airport, she began to feel strange, and grabbing her mother’s arm, she put on sun glasses so she would not look suspicious.
This was the second time Lizzie had used prescription medicine to feel a euphoric change in consciousness that accompanies the consumption of psychoactive medications such as ADHD medicine, anti-anxiety pills and painkillers.
Lizzie’s drug of choice was Ativan, a commonly prescribed medication, used to treat anxiety, seizures and insomnia. The first time she used Ativan recreationally, she was in a much more controlled environment.
“I knew it calmed you down, and I had to go out to a party I didn’t want to go to, so I took double [the average dose],” Lizzie said.
She said the second time she inadvertently became “s**t-faced high” after taking too much and has taken Ativan since.
“I could see why kids would want to do it,” Lizzie said. “But it’s just too expensive.”
Tony* ’13 said he had a similar experience when he took some of his mother’s Xanax after a stressful test.
“I came home after my first SAT and was super nervous,” Tony said. “I took a quarter of a tablet, and it calmed me down. It makes everything seem more manageable.”
But Lizzie and Tony were lucky. According to Westwood psychiatrist Dr. Julie C. Weinbach, who specializes in adolescent psychiatry, there could be serious side effects to unsupervised use of prescription medications, especially ones like Ativan.
“It’s like drinking and driving: reflexes are slow, and coordination is a problem,” Weinbach said. “It’s the kind of medication that if you took too much you could die, but I don’t know if anyone would be dumb enough to take a whole handful.”
However, there is a risk of over dosage, especially in unsupervised teenage drug use. According to the United States Center for Disease Control, unintentional lethal prescription drug overdose has been rising since 1999, with teenage use contributing to a large portion of the increase.
“The worst thing about medications like Ativan and Xanax, also known as benzodiazepines, is they are very physically addicting,” Weinbach said. “If someone took a lot every day and stopped, [he or she] could possibly have a seizure and die.”
However, the most common side effects of extended drug use and sudden withdrawal are similar to those for detoxing alcoholics. Symptoms includes sweating, tremors, nausea and other physical symptoms, she said.
Other medications such as Adderall are used not for pleasure, but as a “study drug.” Greg* ’12 got Adderall from a friend and started using it to help him concentrate.
“I started taking ADD meds so I could finish my tests faster,” Greg said. “I never got the reaction that people would seek this stuff out for.”
Dr. Jennifer Ouchi, a pediatrician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said teens are most likely getting medications like Adderall and other amphetamine study drugs from friends with prescriptions, whereas Xanax and anti-anxiety pills are coming from their parents’ medicine cabinet.
“Parents would most likely have serious issues that would need to be treated [with the anti-anxiety pills],” Ouchi said. “They would usually have a month-long supply. I can’t imagine most kids would be able to get a prescription like that.”
Not all people take these drugs for recreational or studying purposes. Weinbach said amphetamine salts, such as Adderall, cause a loss of appetite which could lead to weight loss and thus could be used by teenagers seeking an easy diet fix. However, these medications too can have serious side effects if not monitored properly.
“I always ask people if they have a history of heart disease or family members that have died from heart attacks before prescribing these pills,” Weinbach said. “There is a risk that these could cause sudden cardiac death. This is when people who wouldn’t normally have a heart attack, like teenage girls, just drop dead.”
Some students who use these drugs for medical purposes are strongly against their recreational use. Candice* ’14, who is prescribed both Adderall and Xanax for ADD and chronic anxiety, said people who use these drugs recreationally give the medications a bad name.
“I feel shame talking about [my prescriptions] when I really shouldn’t feel ashamed of it,” Candice said. “If you have ADD and have problems concentrating, you have to take Adderall. It’s bad if someone who doesn’t have problems takes it. It puts me at the same level as them.”
One time, Candice was asked by friends to sell her Xanax pills to them, which she said was “really scary.”
“I’m actually prescribed, and having taken it, I know it has really strong effects,” she said “I won’t take a full one.”
Margaret* ’13, who is prescribed Ativan, said she thinks prescription medicines should stay in the cabinet, and that other recreational drugs exist for a reason.
“If a kid hands you a joint, you know it would affect you ‘as prescribed,’ and it would get you high,” she said. “But when you take something that you don’t know or at too large a dose, you really don’t know how it will affect you.”
Ultimately, Lizzie said the reason she stopped taking Ativan recreationally is that friends who were also using drugs lost control, and she realized that the same thing could happen to her.
“Sometimes when I have to go somewhere I really don’t want to be I feel like I should seek them out, but I fight the urge,” she said.
*names have been changed