Know about teens, club drugs and prescription drug abuse

young woman holding prescription drug capsule
Club drugs can cause brain damage and other serious side effects. Prescription drugs account for the second most commonly abused category of drugs among teens.

Posted May 12, 2010

By Timothy E. Albertson

Here’s the good news. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which surveys trends across the nation, the use of marijuana, cocaine and heroin has stabilized or decreased. The bad news is that millions of young people have now tried so-called rave or party drugs. And among young people ages 12-17, abuse of prescription drugs is now second to pot use.

So-called rave, party or club drugs came into vogue hand-in-hand with all-night dances or raves. Many of the drugs are stimulants, giving the user the ability to party all night long.

The most well-known rave drug is ecstasy, also know as XTC, Clarity or Adam. Its full name, methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), reveals that it’s in the family of methamphetamines. It also has qualities in common with the hallucinogenic drug mescaline.

Ecstasy comes as small, white or colored tablets, often with cute logos such as a smiley face, a star, a Flintstone character or one of the seven dwarfs imprinted on them.

Ecstasy was sometimes recommended during the 1970s by marriage counselors because of its reputed ability to get people in touch with their innermost feelings. Users often describe feeling happy, relaxed and in tune with others while taking the drug. As ecstasy’s many dangerous side effects became known, it became illegal in the United States for any use.

About the author

Dr. Albertson © UC RegentsTimothy E. Albertson is chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine and acting chair of internal medicine at UC Davis Health System. He also serves as medical director of the Sacramento Division of the California Poison Control System.

Anyone who has researched this drug on the Internet has probably come across various popular sites for users. Even though many of the sites clearly have a pro-use bias, a few minutes reading the Q&A sections reveals in frightening detail the serious risks of taking this drug. Healthy young people write about personal experiences with seizures, dangerously rapid heart rates, yellow eyes from liver damage, paranoia, sleeplessness and panic attacks. Many of these outcomes persist for months, even after stopping drug use. This is clearly not a safe drug. Some of the reactions, such as seizures and heart and liver abnormalities, are life-threatening.

Brain damage

Researchers also have evidence of possibly permanent changes in the brain caused by ecstasy. PET scans of the brains of heavy users who stopped using the drug at least three weeks prior to the study showed significant alterations of the brain’s ability to bind serotonin, a neurotransmitter critically involved with normal experiences of mood, emotion and pain. Users also had poorer results in several general intelligence tests.

Studies on monkeys allow researchers to examine the brain more directly. In one study, serotonin-producing nerve fibers regrew excessively in regions involved in sleep and appetite and failed to regrow at all in areas involved in memory and learning more than a year after ecstasy was given. Other monkeys exposed to ecstasy for four days and displayed brain damage more than six years later.

Other risks of stimulants involve participating in vigorous exercise for prolonged periods (such as dancing), causing heat exhaustion and dehydration. The stimulants override the body’s natural reaction to rest, cool down and get water, leading to dangerous, and sometimes even fatal consequences. Of course, such drugs are made even more unpredictable when mixed with alcohol or other drugs, and by the fact that each illegally made drug is a bit of an unknown in terms of ingredients.

Heavy users showed alterations of the brain’s ability to bind serotonin, a neurotransmitter critically involved with normal experiences of mood, emotion and pain. They also had poorer results in several general intelligence tests.

Alternatives no safer

“Herbal ecstasy” containing ephedrine (ma huang) is mistakenly viewed by some as a natural – and therefore safer – alternative to ecstasy. It also consists of stimulants and has similar dangers to ecstasy.

Another rave drug to be aware of is gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), also known as G, Liquid Ecstasy or Georgia Home Boy. Used for its intoxicating, sedating and euphoria-inducing properties, it’s also called the “date rape” drug because of  the ease with which it can be slipped unnoticed into drinks.

Unfortunately, this drug is widely available because it can be manufactured from or metabolized in the body from dietary supplements and other easily obtained ingredients. GHB is a depressant, slowing breathing and heart rate, and can be fatal at high doses.

Monitor the medicine cabinet

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, prescription drugs account for the second-most commonly abused category of drugs. The three classes of prescription drugs that are most commonly abused include:

  • Opioids prescribed to treat pain such as codeine or oxycodone
  • Depressants used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders, such as barbiturates (Mebaral and Nembutal) and benzodiazepines (Valium and Xanax)
  • Stimulants prescribed to treat ADHD and narcolepsy, such as: dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine and Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta)

bathroom medicine cabinet © iStockphoto
The majority of teens get prescription drugs easily and for free, often from friends or relatives.

Nearly 10 percent of 12th graders surveyed in 2008 reported using Vicodin without a doctor's orders in the past year, for example. And among 12- and 13-year-olds, prescription drugs are the drugs of choice.

National drug reports found teens are abusing prescription drugs because they believe the myth that these drugs provide a medically safe high. One-third of teens believe there’s “nothing wrong” with using prescription medicines without a prescription once in a while, and nearly three out of 10 teens believe prescription pain relievers — even if not prescribed by a doctor — are not addictive.

The majority of teens get prescription drugs easily and for free, often from friends or relatives. The good news is that you can take steps immediately to limit their access. Safeguard all drugs at home by monitoring quantities and controlling access.

Unneeded prescription drugs can be hidden and thrown away in the trash, disguised or mixed with an undesirable substance. Ask friends and family to safeguard their prescription drugs as well.

Outline the real-life risks

Communication is also crucial. Tell your teen these are powerful drugs which, when abused, can be just as dangerous as street drugs. The risks far outweigh any "benefits."

Talk to your teens about rave drugs and prescription drugs. They deserve to know the facts about the risks of these drugs.