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Teens and Prescription Drugs: An Analysis of Recent Trends on the Emerging Drug Threat

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Feb 26, 2009

A number of national studies and published reports indicate that the intentional abuse of prescription drugs, such as pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants and sedatives, to get high is a growing concern -- particularly among teens -- in the United States. In fact, among young people ages 12-17, prescription drugs have become the second most abused illegal drug, behind marijuana. Though overall teen drug use is down nationwide and the percentage of teens abusing prescription drugs is still relatively low compared to marijuana use, there are troubling signs that teens view abusing prescription drugs as safer than illegal drugs and parents are unaware of the problem. This report examines this emerging threat by seeking to identify trends in the intentional abuse of prescription drugs among teens.

Executive Summary

Teens are turning away from street drugs and using prescription drugs to get high. New users of prescription drugs have caught up with new users of marijuana.

Next to marijuana, the most common illegal drugs teens are using to get high are prescription medications.

Teens are abusing prescription drugs because they believe the myth that these drugs provide a medically safe high.

The majority of teens get prescription drugs easily and for free, often from friends or relatives.

Girls are more likely than boys to intentionally abuse prescription drugs to get high.

Pain relievers such as OxyContin and Vicodin are the most commonly abused prescription drugs by teens.

Adolescents are more likely than young adults to become dependent on prescription medication.

Prevalence and Incidence

Next to marijuana, the most common illegal drugs teens are using to get high are prescription medi- cations. Teens are turning away from street drugs and using prescription drugs to get high. Indeed, new users of prescription drugs have caught up with new users of marijuana.

For the first time, there are just as many new abusers (12 and older) of prescription drugs as there are for marijuana. (SAMHSA, 2006)

Among 12-17-year-olds, the gap between new marijuana users and new prescription drug users is shrinking. Between 2003 and 2005, the gap closed by 5.9 percent. In 2005, the estimated number of 12-17-year- olds who started using prescription drugs in the 12 months prior to the sur vey was 850,000, compared with 1,139,000 marijuana initiates. In 2003 the estimates were 913,000 for pre- scription drugs, compared to 1,219,000 mari- juana initiates. (NSDUH, 2004 and 2006)

Three percent, or 840,000 teens ages 12-17, reported current abuse of prescription drugs in 2005, making this illegal drug category the second most abused next to marijuana (7%). (NSDUH, 2006)

In 2005, 2.1 million teens abused prescription drugs. (NSDUH, 2006)

Teens ages 12-17 have the second-highest annual rates of prescription drug abuse after young adults (18-25). (SAMHSA, 2006)

Prescription drugs are the most commonly abused drug among 12-13-year-olds. (NSDUH, 2006)

Teens (12-17) and young adults (18-25) were more likely than older adults to start abusing prescription drugs in the past year. (SAMHSA, 2006)

One-third of all new abusers of prescription drugs in 2005 were 12-17-year-olds. (NSDUH, 2006)

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