Posted: April 3, 2013 at 11:18 pm

By Katiann Marshall, Katherine Heath and David Perry

Last semester, a student at West Virginia University passed out in class, slamming his head face down in the desk. He was unconscious for two hours. The night before, he and a couple of his friends had snorted Klonopin, a powerful anti-anxiety medication. He snorted five pills before driving home, swerving the entire way, too messed up to realize he shouldn’t be driving. He woke up the next morning with a huge gash in his forehead and no recollection of the night before. He went to the emergency room where he was told that he had overdosed and was only a pill or two away from dying.

The WVU freshman is among a growing number of students at the university who are abusing prescription drugs. They are part of a larger epidemic in West Virginia, which has among the highest rates of prescription drug overdoses in the nation. More people are killed every year from prescription drug overdoses than from car accidents in West Virginia, and the problem is especially acute among the state’s younger residents. West Virginia reported the ninth highest rate of prescription drug abuse in the nation among 18 to 25-year-olds,  according to a 2011 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey.

“I have seen a huge increase in prescription pill abuse in the past couple years in Morgantown,” says Sergeant Bryon Hennessey of the Morgantown Police. “I don’t think young adults these days quite understand the impact that this type of experimentation can have on their lives.”

Most of the overdoses in the Mountain State result from the misuse of prescription painkillers such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. But stimulants like Adderall and Vyvanse, which are prescribed for the treatment of attention deficit disorders, are also commonly abused by university students. Many students believe that these stimulants will help their academic performance, but they are not as aware of its serious side effects, such as depression, anxiety and even suicidal behavior.

A West Virginia student snorts a line of Adderall while drinking at a friend’s home. According to SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 90 percent of students who reported Adderall abuse also participated in binge drinking in the past month, and over half of those students were heavy abusers of alcohol.

A West Virginia student snorts a line of Adderall while drinking at a friend’s home. According to SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 90 percent of students who abused Adderall also participated in binge drinking. Photo by Katiann Marshall

Many WVU students also pop anti-anxiety drugs that quickly become addictive, such as benzodiazepines like Ativan, Klonopin and Xanax. Students often mix these sedatives with alcohol and prescription painkillers, which can lead to blackouts and trouble breathing. The actor Heath Ledger is among many young people who have overdosed on a mixture of sedatives and painkillers in recent years.

“[Young people] have the misperception that prescription medications, because they are obtained legally, do not represent a significant risk,” says Dr. Herbert Linn, assistant director of research at the WVU Injury Control Research Center. But they do, he adds.

“I have a friend who took 7 pills of Xanax and drank and drove. He drove and wrapped his car around a pole,” says another freshman at West Virginia University who asked not to be named. While this student survived, others don’t. More than 500 West Virginians died from accidental prescription drug overdoses in 2010 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In a study by the Partnership for a Drug Free America, fewer than half the teenagers surveyed saw a great risk in experimenting with prescription medicines. Experts say that’s because they grew up at a time when pharmaceutical companies spent billions on advertising powerful psychoactive drugs directly to consumers, often hiding the negative effects of the drugs from the public.  In the 1990s, doctors on key government advisory boards, unaware of the addictive nature of painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin, liberalized guidelines for prescribing these drugs. That, in turn, prompted an exponential increase in doctors prescribing them. It also created a generation of 18 to 25-year-olds with rates of abuse three times as high as older adults,  earning them the label of “Generation Rx.”

“First time use among many in this generation often occurred in the home, or in a friend’s home, because more and more homes had prescription painkillers in their medicine cabinets,” says Dr. Linn.

According to the CDC, the amount of prescription painkillers prescribed in the United States is enough to medicate the entire adult population in the United States for one month continuously.

Data from the CDC shows that states with higher rates of prescription drugs prescribed have higher rates of prescription drug overdoses. West Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida are all among the highest in overdose rate and prescription rate. The lowest four states in prescription rates all have overdose rates substantially lower than states with higher prescription rates.

Data from the CDC shows that states with higher rates of prescription drug use have higher rates of prescription drug overdoses. In 2008, West Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida were among the highest in rates of both prescriptions and overdoses. Graph by David Perry

Prescription drug monitoring programs have now been put into place in an effort to curb the abuse of prescription painkillers in West Virginia and other states. Electronic databases allow physicians and pharmacies to identify patients who are getting multiple doctors or pharmacies to fill prescriptions, a practice known as doctor shopping.  However, the usage of these databases is inconsistent at best, critics say.

“Although [these databases] have been effective in identifying patients engaged in doctor and pharmacy shopping in some states, such programs need to be used routinely in order to be effective,” says Linn.

“Not all states require prescribers and pharmacists to check the databases. Even where such requirements are in place, enforcement may be an issue,” adds Linn.

In Florida, a state with high prescription drug sales, use of the database by physicians and pharmacies is not mandatory. The Tampa Bay Times recently reported that only eight percent of the physicians in the state of Florida opt to use the database.  Many of the painkillers sold on the street in West Virginia come from pain clinics in Florida.

Information in databases usually isn’t shared among states, allowing patients who use multiple doctors and pharmacies in different states to get multiple prescriptions.

College students abuse drugs in part because they are at an age when they feel they are invincible, Hennessey says.  But for too many young people, that invincibility is an illusion.

“No parent drops their kid off at college thinking they are going to get a phone call saying their child is in the hospital from an overdose,” Hennessey says. “Parents like to think they know and trust their kids to make good decisions, but when it actually happens to you and your family, it’s truly devastating.”