A panel with representatives from government, schools, police and nonprofits gathered at Bergen Community College Tuesday to discuss a growing health issue: prescription drug abuse.
Forty Americans die each day from overdosing on prescription painkillers, said Angelo Valenti, executive director of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey.
One way to prevent these deaths is through education, he said.
"Tonight we are doing exactly what we need to do," Valenti said. "We are learning about the issue."
Meg Parisi learned the hard way. The Mantoloking resident's 21-year-old son Patrick died of a prescription drug overdose in November.
Patrick was addicted to OxyContin, a narcotic pain reliever. The pills helped relieve the pain of a genetic hip condition.
In time, he came to depend on the drug.
"In order to continue day to day, they must perpetuate their use," Parisi said of painkiller addicts.
OxyContin can become an expensive habit, Lt. Thomas Dombrowski of the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office Narcotics Task Force said. An 80-milligram OxyContin pill can go for $80 on the street.
The addiction can lead abusers to OxyContin's cheaper cousin, heroin, which is also derived from the poppy plant and provides a similar high.
"Heroin sells for $4 to $5 a bag," Dombrowski said.
One of the dangers of prescription drug abuse is that it does what it's supposed to do—relieve pain, Andrew Yeager, a school psychologist in the Park Ridge school district, said.
The payoff of abusing can outweigh the rational consequences parents and educators try to instill in children.
In addition to physical pain, OxyContin has a mitigating effect on the anxiety, shyness and even depression that some teens feel, Yeager said. So when they say yes the first time, it can be difficult to stop.
"Kids are getting their introduction to one of the most potent substances you can use," he said.
To prevent more cases like Patrick Parisi, Yeager said, parents need to continue educating their children about the dangers of drug abuse. They also need to limit how accessible prescription drugs are in their homes.
The great majority—70 percent—of young people abusing prescription drugs get access to it at home, Valenti said. In response, the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey spearheaded a pilot program in New Jersey that would become a national model, now known as Operation Takeback.
The program, which allows residents to drop off prescription drugs at their local police departments, collected 9,000 pounds of medicine from 50,000 residents in its first year.
"People who were getting this message wanted to take action," Valenti said.
On the legislative side, Assemblywoman Valierie Vanieri Huttle helped pass a law establishing the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, a statewide database that keeps track of drug prescriptions. Dombrowski called it an extremely important tool.
In the past, patients could shop around at multiple doctors to get multiple prescriptions for large quantities of drugs. The program allows pharmacists to check each patient's prescription history to prevent abuse.
But parents can take matters into their own hands, Parisi said.
"Put them in a safe," she said. "Everybody should have one."
Sarah, an alumna of the Spring House, a halfway house for women recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, said she the first supply of Xanax she abused was her mother's prescription. Sarah did not give her last name.
Sarah said she failed out of college and fell into other drugs, including heroin when she couldn't afford OxyContin.
"It really is in my opinion the same high," she said.
Sarah is back in college after going through rehabilitation programs including the Spring House. On May 29, she will have been clean and sober for 17 months.
"Spring House has given me my life back," she said.