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A Changing Teen Drug Culture

When the Partnership for a Drug-Free America released the 2005 results of its survey of teen attitudes about drugs, parents everywhere breathed a sigh of relief - because substance abuse among 7th through 12th grade students continued to decline. But the news was not all good. There were a few exceptions to the decreased prevalence of drug use among teens - and over-the-counter (OTC) medicine abuse was one of them. The problem of teen abuse of OTC medications continues to worsen each year.

What has changed in our society to make OTC medications the drug of choice for today's children? A look at the history of drug use tells us that things were vastly different for young people during the 60s when marijuana, cocaine, and LSD use was at an all-time high. The post-World War II baby boom had resulted in 70 million teens and young adults, most of them eager to pull away from the conservative thinking of the 50s, ready to question authority and the government, and demand new freedoms and rights. This "counterculture" of young people threw off their class trappings to embrace a laid back bohemian attitude, rife with sex (made less risky by the newly introduced birth control pill) and drugs, which due to increased commerce, were readily available.

During the 60s and 70s, not much was known about the harmful effects of street drugs. And one of the most popular drugs, marijuana, was far less harmful than today's marijuana, which has as much as twice the amount of THC (the psychoactive chemical) in it.

Today's teens have grown up learning about the dangers of street drugs. They are much more likely than teens of the past to believe that there are social, financial, and health risks involved with drug use. Our children know that using drugs may result in family conflict, losing friends, relinquishing their driver's licenses, and missing out on opportunities for college financial aid and subsequent employment. They are also aware of some of the health risks of street drugs like marijuana, such as disruption in short-term memory and a potential for cancer down the road.

But today's young people have also grown up in a society in which there is a pill to cure every ailment - aches and pains, sleep disturbances, overweight, anxiety, and even impotence. Many of these medications, such as cough syrups, diet pills, and sleep aids, can be purchased over the counter, and they are available for little or no cost in a variety of locations - in grandma's purse and mom and dad's medicine cabinet, or even on the Internet.

Because OTC medications are both readily available and widely used, it may be hard for children to comprehend why they are appropriate to take in one situation but not another, which may lead young teens to begin experimenting with them. Children may not even use OTC medications to get high, but to relieve stress or pain, or just to relax. It's important for parents to understand how and why kids get involved in OTC drug use so they can recognize the problem and help their child stay drug-free.