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Just One Pill

Just One Pill: Parts One, Two and Three of a Three-Part Series

Special News Reports

Part One

Forget dealers—new generation of addicts goes straight for the medicine cabinets

The 10th-grader selected her favorite color. It was a very simple task that she and most young people have probably done countless times before. However, this time, the stakes were never higher. She was not choosing a color for a blouse, a cell phone case or curtains for her bedroom. Instead, she was selecting a pill from a menagerie of narcotics that her peers had brought to a “pharm party” – an alarming and frightening phenomenon that’s been making a comeback among teenagers throughout Long Island.

Buying The Pharm

“She was trying to fit in,” said Detective Pamela Stark of the Nassau County Police Department, who met with reporters from Anton Community Newspapers and recounted this horrifying tale, which occurred in central Nassau.

The pill the young teen selected had been prescribed for a dialysis patient. One of the party attendants probably took it from an ill parent or grandparent. When she took a second pill, after also drinking alcohol, she became nauseous, and then continued to get sicker until she had to be rushed to the hospital.

Janice Talento, CEO of Drug Free Long Island and president of Drug Free Massapequa, shared a similar story of another teen girl, who was rushed to the emergency room because the pill she chose at one of these parties was penicillin, to which she was highly allergic. Talento is also deeply concerned by this common trend among teenagers, which law enforcement officials, school administrators, medical professionals and experts in substance abuse say is quite common throughout all parts of Long Island, covering a variety of socio-economic groups.

“What happens is you can’t come to the party unless you bring a pill,” explained Talento. “You get to the party, you throw your pill in a bowl, they mix them up, you roll the dice. Whatever color you roll, that’s the pill that you take.”

Talento also cautions that “pharm” parties (also referred to as pill parties) become more popular during the spring and summer months, as the weather gets warmer. She says that the better outdoor conditions of spring or summer allow kids to hold these parties away from a residential home and instead conduct them in parks, preserves, or other outside meeting places.

Dr. Stephen Dewey, director of Molecular Imaging at North Shore-LIJ, speaks to students in virtually all of the Island’s school districts. He also corroborates that “pharm” parties are quite common throughout the region. However, he knows of cases where students take this to an even more dangerous and frightening level.

“The thing that I’ve heard most frequently is they’re now taking that glass full of pills and now filling it with vodka,” explains Dewey. “So everything kind of dissolves, and then each kid takes a shot of that concoction.”

According to Dewey, alcohol intensifies drugs, so kids engaging in this behavior are more likely to become addicted and at a quicker rate. Furthermore, he is also terrified by the thought of what kinds of pills are used in these concoctions. He has heard of a variety of narcotics being placed in these mixtures including opiates, antihistamines, cough syrups, cold medications, nitroglycerin (which is used to treat cardiac patients) and even dog medications such as heartworm and de-worming pills.

“If you dissolve 80 pills into a glass that’s dissolved in vodka you’re getting more than one 80 mg pill,” says Dewey.

The rise in popularity of these pill parties is a byproduct of another disturbing trend among local youth—using prescription drugs illegally. While alcohol and marijuana remain the gateway to substance abuse, many of our region’s teenagers and young adults are now turning to prescription drugs.

“The admissions for opiates is as high as I recall it ever being,” says Bruce Goldman, director of Substance Abuse Services at Zucker Hillside Hospital of the North Shore-LIJ Health System. “Normal everyday healthy kids fool around [and] don’t realize the dangerousness of it and before they know it, they’re hooked.”

He also says that OxyContin (brand name of oxycodone) and Percocet are the two most commonly abused prescription drugs.

Opiate Of The People

Dewey expressed a similar opinion, saying that the problem of opiate abuse among youth is the worst he’s seen in his many years of experience. In addition, according to Stark, the number of arrests for opiates in Nassau County last year was double the amount for heroin. And she added that most of these arrests do not occur because of an active pursuit, but rather because the perpetrator was stopped for another reason.

According to the 2010 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 million Americans (ages 12 and over), or about 1 in 20, reported using prescription painkillers for nonmedical purposes in the past year. The CDC also reports about half a million emergency visits in 2010 were due to the misuse or abuse of prescription drugs and about 15,000 Americans die annually due to overdoses in prescription painkillers.

Furthermore, according to the Monitoring the Future survey, which is conducted by the University of Michigan and funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, 7.2 percent of 12th-graders surveyed reported using prescription drugs for nonprescription purposes. In addition, only 16.4 of those who reported using prescription drugs for nonprescribed purposes, responded that the drugs were obtained by a dealer or a stranger. An alarming 70.2 percent stated that they were given drugs by a friend or relative, 40.4 responded that they bought the drugs from a friend or relative, 34.7 reported that they already had the drugs from a previous prescription and 21.8 responded that they took the drugs from a friend or relative.

Local experts stated that although these numbers seem fairly accurate, in actuality they might even be slightly higher. The survey takers are assuming that respondents replied honestly, which some teenagers may not have done even if the survey was conducted anonymously.

A study that was published this month in the Archives of General Psychiatry indeed indicates higher usage. The study used a sample of 10,123 adolescents aged 13 to 18. It was reported that 42.5 percent had indeed used drugs and 16.4 percent were abusing drugs. Additionally, the study also revealed that the median age at the onset of drug abuse with dependence was 14 years, and 15 years for drug abuse without dependence. (Additional studies have also shown pill addiction and abuse by senior citizens, and will be covered in Part 3 of this series.)

Recently released statistics from the Nassau County medical examiner’s office indicate that 149 residents died last year from prescription opiates or heroin and another 310 residents who died had these opiates in their system at the time of their death. In 2010, 98 people died from these drugs. The largest spike was in deaths related to oxycodone, which have surpassed heroin deaths for the second year in a row.

All of the experts who spoke with Anton Community Newspapers also concurred that this is a problem which has spread throughout all of Long Island. While it might be comforting for some to mistakenly think that this concern has not hit their particular school district, there is consensus among the experts that this is a crisis which affects the entire region. Dewey said that he can go into any school district and buy OxyContin or Vicodin for $20. Talento says that she personally witnessed drug deals on the streets of a Gold Coast community when she worked there and Goldman says that this problem is affecting youth across the board.

When asked who is affected by what many are calling an epidemic, Goldman answers, “Clearly, all socioeconomic levels. All functional levels. To me, more intact kids from more intact families than we traditionally saw.”

“I Love You Mama”

One such youth who fell victim to the dangers of prescription drug abuse was Jonathan Sieczkowski of Massapequa. While choking back tears, his mother, Sharon, recalls a respectful, clean-cut, loving son whom she says was beloved by everyone.

“He’d come over and hug me from the back and say ‘I love you, mama’,” Sieczkowki sadly recalls. “He genuinely loved everybody. There wasn’t a bad bone in his body. He wasn’t a wise guy. He was always very respectful. He was a good kid. He was a good kid making a bad choice.”

His mother says that Jonathan’s first bad choice came later than it does for most users. Jonathan attended a parochial elementary school and then a prestigious Nassau Catholic high school, and did not become involved with alcohol or drugs until 10th grade. However, he eventually fell victim to the temptation and this was further exasperated by an injury he suffered while skiing for which he was prescribed OxyContin. Sports injuries are a common beginning for many young people who later become addicted to their pain medication, often leading to heroin.

Things spiraled out of control from there for Jonathan. He was eventually asked to leave his high school after failing a Spanish class, and his life began to fall apart. He would steal money and jewelry from his family to support his expensive drug habit and when he no longer had the money for those pills, he turned to the cheaper alternative, heroin.

“I didn’t know heroin,” recalls his heartbroken mother. “Needles? Kids? I never knew any of it.”

Jonathan was eventually administered into rehab, which was the first time that his mother could be at peace, as she knew he was being taken care of by professionals. Prior to his admission, she would get up in the middle of the night to make sure he was still in his bed. And although Jonathan went through rehab and got his life back on track, he was reintroduced to heroin and it took his life at just 22 years of age.

“If your child has a drug problem, you would do anything to help them,” says Sharon, who is a member of New York State Assemblyman Joseph Saladino’s Heroin and Prescription Drug Abuse Relief Task Force. “What I’m trying to say is, ‘Parents, get educated.’ You would do anything for your child if they are addicted, why wouldn’t you do anything to prevent it?”

She painfully speaks about her son’s tragedy, while publicly trying to get the message across to other parents. She clutches a photo of her son as she speaks of the loving son she lost.

Goldman says that Jonathan’s progression from prescription narcotics to heroin is common among users. He says that while prescription pills can be sold on the street for about $20 a piece, heroin is cheaper and more attainable for those who no longer have the money for the prescription pills.

“Many who start with the prescription pills end up on heroin because it’s less expensive,” says Goldman.

Furthermore, he states, as the addiction gets worse, users build up a tolerance to drugs and need more narcotics to get the same sensation, which again leads to a transition to the less expensive heroin. And while most start with heroin by sniffing it, eventually they will transition to shooting it with a needle to take a stronger version that will deliver more enhanced effects.

Comfortably Numb

This was exactly the scenario that Jenny* got caught up in. She was 15 years old, at her high school Homecoming, when she was given her first Xanax.

“It took me out of myself,” the now-21-year-old recalls, her beautiful hazel eyes clear after 66 days of being sober. “I was uncomfortable in my skin. When I was high, I felt like Superman. I felt like I could do anything. I fell in love with it.”

For Jenny, now living in a “sober house” in Suffolk County, her drug addiction took a familiar course: Xanax, Percocet, OxyContin, pharm parties (“It was scary,” she recalls. “It’s a free-for-all, you don’t know what you’re ingesting”)...and then sniffing heroin.

Since 2011, Jenny has been in rehab four times and has been through detox about 10 times. But then she’d come back to her boyfriend, a user, and the cycle, as much as she wanted to change it, started all over again.

Jenny is no longer seeing that boyfriend, and is thrilled to be clean for more than two months. She even announced it proudly on her Facebook page. Jenny is a very pretty and smart young woman with a sharp sense of humor, who exudes so much potential. She knows that these drugs are destroying that promise.

She says that out of her circle of addicted friends, she’s the only one who has gotten clean. In fact, the day prior to her interview with Anton Newspapers, she attended a wake for a friend who died of an overdose (the second in a week). Deaths of friends and celebrities like Whitney Houston, and most certainly her own OD and resulting seizures, are “definitely a wake-up-call,” Jenny admits, but she acknowledges that she “didn’t have a choice but to maintain. I loved being comfortably numb.”

“Now,” she says, “I can choose to not screw up my life.” There is hope in her face when she says this, and you deeply want to believe her.

Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Mineola-based Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (LICADD), agrees that the problem is spread throughout the Island and through all demographics. He warns that many of the kids who fall victim to prescription drug abuse appeared to have a very bright outlook for their lives.

“Typically when you look at addiction there are kids who are on a path and you could kind of see where things are going from a very early age,” explains Reynolds. “These are not those kids at all.” Jenny says that LICADD was of enormous assistance to her in helping with detox, rehab, counseling, and even sorting out all the bureaucratic red tape.

Lindsay*, another former teen addict from Nassau, spoke to Anton Newspapers about how a prescription drug addiction quickly led her from a promising academic career to near tragedy. Once a high school honor student, her life began to spiral out of control when she got involved with alcohol, which led to marijuana, which eventually led to Xanax, when a marijuana dealer introduced her to it.

“I was a straight-A student,” she recalls. “I played varsity sports. I was involved in clubs and organizations. As soon as the drugs hit, it was all downhill.”

Her decline continued through the beginning of college, when this once-promising student went away to school and would endure 13 hours of bus rides in order to return to Long Island and meet with a dealer to acquire more Xanax. Her grades, of course, continued to decline until she was on the brink of flunking out.

“It just distorted my views and my ambition,” she says. “My ambition was gone. I was so addicted to them for so long, when I wasn’t on them, my life was in shambles. I would be depressed. I wouldn’t get out of bed. Taking Xanax made me able to get out of bed and go through my daily routine and do the things normal people can do. Without them I couldn’t do those normal things.”

Despite her poor grades and lack of ambition, she still didn’t see the problem. Eventually, she quit Xanax, not because she wanted to, but because she ran out of the medication.

“The only reason I ever stopped was because I ran out,” she says.

About a week and a half later on Christmas Eve, she woke up in her car. She was in pain and the smell of air bag dust permeated the interior of the automobile, which was wrapped around a tree. Discontinuing Xanax without proper medical supervision had caused her to suffer a seizure, which resulted in her losing consciousness and crashing her vehicle. The hospital staff subjected her to all kinds of tests, but because she did not tell them of her Xanax dependency, they were not able to find the true cause of her seizure.

On the bright side, the accident did help her to turn her life around. She eventually returned to college, at a different school, and hopes to become a social worker. She proudly says that she has been drug free for about 18 months.

“I never thought I would make it past 25. When you’re doing drugs, you never look toward the future.”

* We have changed the names of some of the young addicts.


Part Two

The Deadly Cabinet

According to the experts, there are several reasons behind the increase in prescription drug abuse among Long Island’s youth. One extremely significant factor is the ease of accessibility. According to the experts, most teenagers have access to these narcotics right in the medicine cabinet of their own homes. And since most people do not keep count of the number of pills in their medicine chests, one or two missing pills that are used to gain admission to a pill party will likely go unnoticed.

“In this day and age, no one should have abuseable medications in the bathroom medicine cabinet,” says Bruce Goldman, director of Substance Abuse Services at Zucker Hillside Hospital of the North Shore-LIJ Health System.

Both Detective Pamela Stark of the Nassau County Police Department, who met with reporters from Anton Community Newspapers, and Dr. Stephen Dewey, director of molecular imaging at North Shore-LIJ, who lectures students in virtually all of the Island’s school districts, agree that the medicine cabinet is the new “pusher.” They commented that the bathroom is the one place in a home where someone is completely unchecked. So, if a teenager uses a bathroom, he or she could have access to any unsecured medication kept in there. And if it is not someone who lives in the house, it could be a friend or a neighbor who takes advantage of the situation and steals the medication.

“That would be like putting a dangerous instrument in your bathroom and leaving it there for whomever,” says Stark. “If you’re going to leave things in your bathroom, those children are now offered everything in that room. If they only took one or two, who’s to know?”

She also points out that those who are intent on stealing pills will be persistent about doing so. The detective says that some will ask to use a neighbor’s bathroom in a ruse for sneaking into the medicine cabinet, knowing that an unsuspecting and kind-hearted neighbor would not turn them away. Stark said there are adults who are resorting to these underhanded measures as well.

At 15, Jenny*, who started her life of addiction with just one pill at her high school homecoming, got so caught up in the lifestyle she began to steal her mother’s pills from the family’s medicine cabinet, and literally scouted the neighborhood for more.

She and a Girl Scout friend went door-to-door selling cookies. The pretty, dark-haired Jenny, with her innocent, young appearance would ask each homeowner if she could use their bathroom. Once inside, she raided their medicine cabinets.

Stark also identifies grandparents as frequent targets. She explains that grandparents are targeted because they are more likely to be taking prescription drugs, aren’t as suspecting of the sinister motives and are less likely to secure their medications.

The day after her grandfather died, and her grandmother was out on errands, Jenny came to their house and stole her grandfather’s bottle of OxyContin—120 30 mg pills, which she finished off in three days! That dangerous incident led to one of her many rehab and detox visits, which have always been voluntary—a good sign.

“Not only is it essential for parents to keep track of prescription medication in their own home, to be safe, they must also do this in the homes of grandparents or anywhere their children frequent,” says New York State Assemblyman Joseph Saladino, who launched a heroin and prescription drug abuse task force and considers it a priority to educate Long Island parents about this issue.

The experts are also in agreement that too many pills are being prescribed by some physicians. Dewey is emphatic that the medications are safe and effective when used properly. He said the problem lies with physicians who often prescribe more pills than are needed. As an example, he said that a patient with a simple tooth extraction might need prescription medication for two or three days before switching to an over-the-counter pain remedy. However, he says that some physicians will prescribe a supply for two weeks or more. He states that some physicians tend to overprescribe rather than underprescribe. Dewey says this is done so patients who might need more medication will not have to return to the physician for the refill and be inconvenienced. He also says that some physicians are trying to save their patients from having to make two co-payments as some health insurance plans make it cheaper for patients to recieve larger amounts of pills in one transaction instead of separating a prescription in multiple ones. However, this leads to the dangerous occurence of unused prescription medication being left in medicine cabinets and available for users to pilfer.

“One, I paid for them and two, you never know when you’re going to get hurt again,” relayed Dewey as to why patients keep unused prescription medication instead of properly disposing of it.

“If you’re not aware, you’re just going to leave everything in there,” concurred Stark.

Stuart*, another abuser who spoke with Anton Community Newspapers proudly recalls his adeptness at securing prescriptions for all sorts of pills. He researched medical conditions and pretended to have a variety of ailments including anxiety disorder and slipped discs. To further his act, he cleaned up and wore a shirt and tie for his doctor visits. When questioned for documentation of MRIs that he claimed to have which would support his claims, he even faked a Southern accent and blatantly lied, saying that he would get the records from his home in North Carolina.

“Once I was successful, I couldn’t believe it, so I kept doing it,” Stuart says with a hint of defiance in his voice.

He claims to have visited between seven to 10 doctors, meeting very little resistance when trying to obtain prescriptions. He says that on the infrequent occasion when a doctor would attempt to avoid writing a prescription, he would be able to connive his way into getting what he wanted.

“I told them it was my God-given right not to be in pain,” he asserts. “I told them I’d get the scripts somewhere else and they all complied.”

Stuart also claims to have met very little resistance from pharmacists, as he says he visited about six different pharmacies to obtain his drugs. He says that one pharmacist caught on to his act and ripped up a prescription, but he simply returned to the physician, told him what happened, and was given another one.

However, as smart as he was at gaining the drugs, Stuart was not smart enough to see his life spin out of control. Along the way, he lost everything, spent time in jail and was even homeless. He also saw his dream of being a firefighter, one which was obtainable because of a good score on the application exam, be dashed by the felony conviction, although he is still hopeful of pursuing this goal. After losing everything, and being exiled from his family, he did get clean for a bit and just as his life started to turn around, he fell back into his bad habits. An attempted intervention by his family persuaded him to try to cure himself of his demons and he says he has been clean for six months.

Law enforcement is catching up though, with these unscrupulous doctors. Dr. Stan Xuhui Li was arrested in November for allegedly selling prescription medication to a patient who overdosed. Li, who worked as an anesthesiologist in New Jersey, would work out of a clinic in Flushing during weekends. He is alleged to have treated David Laffer, who perpetrated the Medford Pharmacy massacre while in a desperate drug-fueled search for drugs and money, although the charges are not related to that. Dr. Saji Francis was arrested and later deported for selling prescriptions—his office was located about one block from Massapequa High School. Dr. Leonard Stambler of Baldwin Harbor was also arrested late last year for allegedly selling prescriptions for pain medication. On April 19, Dr. Martin Roginsky, an 83-year-old physician from Cold Spring Harbor and former medical director at the Nassau County jail, was sentenced to three years probation for selling prescriptions.

The Modern Junkie

Another contributing factor to the epidemic of prescription drug abuse is the false sense of security that prescription drugs are safe. The experts say that some abusers have stated that they took prescription drugs because they were not concerned that the drugs had been laced with other substances. In an even more misguided belief, some teenagers have even said that the prescription pills must be safe or physicians would not prescribe them. One teenager went so far as to ask Dewey why drinking Nyquil was a problem, since that’s what you’re supposed to do with it.

“They do try to keep it on the pharmaceutical side because they feel it’s a safer way,” adds Stark, on why teenagers turn to prescription drugs.

“Absolutely,” responded Thomas*, another Long Island teen who became addicted to prescription drugs while attending a Long Island high school. “No question. One thing I never did, regardless of what my financial state was, I never felt comfortable buying something on the street, something that could have been cut or stomped on, something such as heroin in a bag that I just didn’t know what’s in it. You never knew and I never cared to take that risk. I still had value for my life and my well-being. I was just OK as long as I recognized that the drug of choice that I was taking had come from a pharmaceutical company, had come from a doctor.”

Unfortunately, in his youth, Thomas did not recognize that it’s not OK to abuse a prescription drug, no matter where it comes from. He identifies himself as a former straight-A student who succumbed to peer pressure and first tried alcohol around age 13, in order to fit in socially. He soon tried marijuana and then, eventually, prescription pills, including painkillers and anti-anxiety medication.

After having his grades tumble through his junior and senior year of high school, he enrolled in college, doing barely enough work to get by as he recalls that he was often high. He attended three different colleges before graduating.

Thomas eventually did recognize where his life was heading and sought help. In order to transition him off of his addiction, a psychiatrist prescribed Paxil. However, he was not alerted to the side effects and was not aware that he should not operate heavy machinery and crashed his car into a median, resulting in a broken neck.

He has recovered from that injury and has been off drugs for two years as he gets his life back on track. Yet, he is concerned for today’s young people. He knows firsthand of teenagers who are quite cunning and successful in their attempts to procure prescription pills.

“Kids are smarter than we give them credit for,” he cautions. “Basically, go on the computer, read about the various symptoms one would exhibit when suffering an anxiety disorder and [they] can easily fake those symptoms in an office [to] get a prescription.”

Thomas knows of those who have done this and feigned painful injuries as well. He also knows of some peers who have pilfered medications right out of the medicine cabinets of their parents, grandparents, neighbors and friends, which he would occasionally do as well.

“You didn’t have to pay money,” he says of why teenagers resort to these measures. “Generally you don’t have a ton of money to spend. [Also], you don’t have to go out and meet with people. There are no legal implications.”

Or just take the train. Jenny says that when she takes the LIRR into Manhattan, while changing at Jamaica, she is consistently solicited for drugs.

The problem for addicts like herself, Jenny says, is that she can obtain drugs “anywhere, any time” she wants. During a brief period of attempted sobriety several years ago, Jenny moved in with relatives in the Midwest farm country. It didn’t take long before she found the junkies and dealers there. According to the study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, 81.4 percent of those teens in a national sample reported that they had the opportunity to use illicit drugs.

Betty*, a former junkie who grew up in rural New Jersey and who moved to Long Island during her high school years, says that, like Jenny, she had no problem finding dealers and other users in her new hometown. She looks like the perfectly innocent girl-next-door, but there’s a radar that junkies have, and the addict and dealers soon met up. Jenny, too, is a beautiful young woman, who looks like she should be sitting in a school cafeteria reading Elle magazine, instead of trolling for drugs. Unfortunately, this is the new face of the American junkie.

Jenny warns that drug use is rampant among youth. She believes that in her high school, in Suffolk County, 70 to 80 percent of the students experimented with drugs. While far from a scientific statistic (although, close enough to General Psychiatry’s), it is eerily similar to the same number that at least a dozen other young addicts interviewed by Anton editors, from all parts of the Island, have suggested.

As for Jenny, “If you didn’t have something to give me, I had no reason to talk to you…and I talked to a lot of people.”

Watch Out For Grandma, Too

Scott Skrynecki, director of the Office of Investigations for the Nassau County Department of Social Services, says that there has been an unprecedented increase in Medicaid claims for prescription pain pills that does not parallel the increase in Medicaid enrollment. There is serious concern that some are abusing the system and getting these pain pills for free and thus, the taxpayers are actually paying for some to abuse prescription pills.

There is also concern that the problem is not limited to youth, but is actually a growing issue for seniors as well. According to the 2007 to 2009 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Surveys on Drug Use and Health (NSDUHs), an estimated 4.8 million adults aged 50 or older, or 5.2 percent of adults in that age range, had used an illicit drug in the past year. And while marijuana use was more common than the nonmedical use of prescription-type drugs among adults aged 50 to 59 (5.9 vs. 3.6 percent), nonmedical use of prescription-type drugs was as common as use of marijuana among adults aged 60 or older (1.2 vs. 1.1 percent).

“It’s impacting everybody from a public safety and health concern and it’s impacting us financially too because Medicaid pays for a lot of these drugs,” says Skrynecki.

* We have changed the names of some of the young addicts interviewed for this story.


Part Three

Gaining Control

Those parents who are aware of the drug problem on Long Island might still not take the necessary precautions to ensure that their children are safe. Experts warn that this is a mistake.

The mom of Jenny*, (her name has been changed for this article) the 20-year-old recovering heroin addict who began her drug downfall with just one pill at her high school homecoming, realized that her ninth-grader was stealing her medications, so she began hiding them, an action the professionals encourage.

“Families don’t want to think it could happen to them, but it does,” warns Bruce Goldman, director of Substance Abuse Services at the psychiatric facility, Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks.

And the experts also strongly advise parents—and grandparents—to be vigilant. Although it seems improbable, just one pill missing from a medicine cabinet could be an indication of a problem. At minimum, it could mean that a teenager is attending a pharm or pill party and used that missing pill to gain admission.

Dr. Stephen Dewey, director of molecular imaging at North Shore-LIJ, says that there are many animal studies, which show that a single dose of a drug will get an animal to self-administer the drug continuously. In addition, he added that participants often take more than a single dose when at a pill party, either by being pressured into taking multiple pills or by drinking the potion of pills dissolved in alcohol.

“Very much so,” replies Goldman when asked if one missing pill should cause parents concern. “Your pills shouldn’t be in the medicine cabinet, they should be locked away and hidden.”

And another area of concern is the adverse reactions that can occur even with just one exposure to drugs. As with the teen girls who reacted to dialysis medication and penicillin they took at a pharm party, one dose of the wrong medication can have lethal side effects. Making the problem worse, young people who are participating in a party where substances are being abused are reluctant to call for help out of fear of being caught or think that the youth has simply passed out and only needs to sleep it off. Therefore, those who do become ill may not get the necessary and prompt treatment that is required.

“It’s the most common thing you hear,” emphasizes Dewey. “When you overdose on an opiate, you stop breathing. But before you stop breathing you fall asleep. So what happens is typically the kid just starts to pass out. They die from respiratory arrest. The kid passes out in another room or they pass out right where they are and they stop breathing and no one notices.”

Janice Talento, CEO of Drug Free Long Island and president of Drug Free Massapequa, strongly urges parents to maintain contact with their children when they are out with their friends. By contact, she means directly speaking with their child and not communicating through a text message. She explains that teenagers who know they will be drinking or taking prescription pills may make arrangements with a friend to text their parents at a certain time to pretend that everything is fine. She added that a parent speaking with a friend of her children who says that everything is okay is not sufficient. She stresses that a parent should demand to speak directly to their child.

“The majority of the time, these kids are doing things, somebody goes into an overdose and they all run, because no one wants to get caught,” Talento says.

She also says that another disturbing trend is for drinks, including nonalcoholic beverages such as soda, to be spiked with substances when someone is not looking. Therefore she urges her children and everyone else, to be in constant observation of any drinks they are having at a party and to get a fresh one if a drink is left unattended.

Adding insult to injury, Dewey says that those who do overdose can be treated with a drug called Narcan (naloxone), which he explains reverses the effects of opiates instantly. In fact, he said physicians speak of their experiences of being presented with a patient who is unconscious from opiates. The physician treats the patient with Narcan, who then wakes up, makes an obscene gesture and walks out of the hospital. So, while Narcan can save a life, there needs to be a desire for help afterwards.

The problem has been brought to the forefront by the tragedies that have occurred on Long Island due to prescription drug abusers. In April of 2010, a then 18-year-old Kayla Gerdes, was driving while high on drugs, when she jumped a curb, and ran over and killed a Hempstead doctor who was mowing her front lawn, according to Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice. In addition to the charges related to the crash, Gerdes was also found to be in possession of a stolen doctor’s prescription pad and a pill bottle containing 22 Oxycodone pills and 29 Xanax pills.

“Kayla Gerdes took the wheel when she was high on drugs, recklessly took the life of an innocent woman, and cruelly showed no remorse,” Rice said. “This case illustrates the tragic consequences of drugged driving.”

This past New Year’s Eve, John Capano, a Massapequa resident and an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was killed in a shooting in Seaford when he intervened and tried to apprehend a suspect who entered a pharmacy, announced an armed robbery and demanded cash and drugs. The suspect was also killed in the exchange.

There was the horror in Medford when junkie David Laffer shot and killed four innocent victims when robbing a pharmacy of prescription pills. His wife, Melinda Brady, had reportedly become addicted to painkillers after undergoing oral surgery two years earlier. Laffer also became addicted, and after losing his job, he turned to armed robbery and murder to obtain the pills. At his sentencing, he alluded to prescription pill abuse and doctor shopping.

So, that one pill can have resounding effects.

What advice do the experts have for parents to protect their children through these dangerous times? The first is to get rid of excess prescription drugs within a household and to keep the necessary medications out of the reach of their children and other visitors to their home. Talento’s organization recommends parents keep their medications in a lock box that requires fingerprint identification in order to be opened.

“Knowing that pharmaceutical addiction begins with a pill that was in someone’s medicine cabinet, we realize the importance of getting parents to keep a closer eye on the medications in their home,” says Assemblyman Saladino. “That’s why I have created a medicine cabinet registry and resource tool kit to help parents track prescriptions and to send a message to their children that they are watching closely.”

“Parents should either have a locked medicine cabinet or should police the stuff [or] not have it in the first place,” agreed Dewey.

Parents are also urged not to take a cavalier attitude toward drugs, including marijuana and alcohol, which are still being used as gateways into additional substance abuse. Almost all of the addicts who contributed their stories for this article stated that their problem began with alcohol before eventually escalating into the prescription pills. The experts warn that some parents do not become overly concerned about their children experimenting with marijuana, as they may have done so in their own youth. And, of course, having kids see their parents doing drugs or abusing alcohol, which a number of the interviewed junkies in the stories have experienced, sets the worst possible example.

Nassau County Police Detective Pam Stark, says she was once asked by a youth, “How come our parents are smoking [marijuana] every night?”

Parents should also watch for symptoms that indicate something might be wrong. Talento stresses that if a student exhibits a change in grades from excellent grades to something lower, parents should seriously investigate to determine if there might be an issue. She also said parents should be concerned if their children seem apathetic about issues that they used to be very concerned about, such as their appearance. Talento additionally warns parents to be concerned if their children stop making eye contact with them.

“They need to know warning signs,” Talento advises parents.

Goldman concurs. He said a decline in hygiene might be a warning signal as is not engaging in usual activities. He also says that parents should watch for not fulfilling role responsibilities, sleeping excessively, always being tired, being removed, and being isolated. Furthermore, he urges parents not to make excuses for things that don’t make sense such as money or medication that is suddenly missing.

Goldman also strongly urges parents to accept the situation if there is a problem and to seek treatment. He says that research shows that treatment does work and the earlier it is begun, the more effective the treatment will be.

“Treatment works,” says Goldman. “People get well. People lead normal lives.”

Dewey also stresses the importance of having meaningful discussions with their children. He speaks with his children several times per week and encourages others to do so.

“Find out what’s going on,” urges Dewey. “See how they’re doing. See if anything in their life changes. What you’ll find with kids who start to abuse drugs is their brain dopamine starts to change so their behavior will start to change.”

And perhaps the most important thing that parents can do is to be aware of the potential problem and be educated about it. In her presentations to parents, Stark advises them to go through their children’s Facebook pages and also look at the messages and contacts on their cell phone, as she has done with her own children. She rationalizes that if a parent is paying for a phone, that parent has the right to examine it without concern of invading their child’s privacy. She stresses that being educated is the best way to combat what could be a very serious problem.

“It’s everywhere and the only way we’re going to combat this is by being aware,” she stresses.

And that’s the most bitter pill of all to swallow.

For more information:

The Addiction Treatment Services of Zucker Hillside Hospital, Littauer Building, First Floor, 75-59 263 St., Glen Oaks, (516/718) 470-8950

Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (LICADD), 114 Old Country Rd., Suite 114, Mineola, (516) 747-2606, www.licadd.com.

SAFE Inc., Glen Cove City Hall, Room 204, 9 Glen St., Glen Cove (516) 676-2008, www.safeglencove.org.

YES Community Counseling Center 75 Grand Ave., Massapequa (516) 799-3203. www.yesccc.org.

Safeguarding medications:

LOCKMED Medical Product Company, www.lockmed. com, (888) 458-2746.

Information on Assemblyman Saldino’s task force as well as that tool kit can be found by visiting www.assembly.state.ny.us/mem/Joseph-S-Saladino.