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Above: Illegal street drugs get a lot of attention, but over the past ten years, abuse of prescription drugs has become a growing problem, especially among teenagers. Prescription drugs are now the leading cause of accidental death in San Diego, and one in five teens report abusing prescription drugs. KPBS video journalist Katie Euphrat went to San Diego High this morning, where a non-profit group launched its national campaign against what the Centers for Disease Control has deemed an epidemic.


National Campaign Against Teen Prescription Drug Abuse Launches At San Diego High



Aired 9/25/12 on KPBS News.

San Diego High School was taken over this morning by students and staff hoping to WAKE UP! students to the growing problem of prescription drug abuse.

SAN DIEGO — Illegal street drugs get a lot of attention, but over the past decade, abuse of prescription drugs has rapidly grown. As reported by KPBS last year, prescription drug-related deaths in the county have increased by 85 percent over the last decade. Prescription drugs are now the number one accidental cause of death in San Diego.

The numbers are especially high among teenagers. According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, more than a third of abusers of prescription drugs are between the ages of 12 and 17.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Above: OxyContin is one of the most common prescription drugs abused by teens.

A non-profit group called WAKE UP! wants to tackle this problem by plastering high schools with educational materials. WAKE UP! launched its national campaign Monday morning at San Diego High School.

WAKE UP! organized a group of San Diego High students who handed out t-shirts, plastered lockers with magnets, painted car windows, and stuck signs all over school lawns and walls - all before the first school bell rang.

"We have a presence in the school for about a month - we actually take over the school, which is what you saw this morning," said Dr. Lora Brown, co-founder of WAKE UP!. "It's hard for any student on this campus to miss the message that we have."

Brown is a pain management physician, and she helped found WAKE UP! after she saw the abuse of drugs she regularly prescribed to her patients.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Above: Lora Brown, M.D., is a pain management physician who co-founded WAKE UP!

"The statistics show that about 2,500 students, teens between the ages of 12 and 17, use pain relievers for the first time every single day in this country," Brown said. "And the frightening thing is, once these kids become addicted, there's no cure for addiction. So the only solution in my mind, now, is through prevention, and prevention of first-time use. That's why we're here."

Brown emphasized the importance of managing the contents of your medicine cabinet.

"People don't realize that when they have unused portions of prescription drugs and they place them in their medicine cabinet, those drugs are at risk to be stolen, to be taken, by friends, by family, by housekeepers," Brown explained. "It's really important today that people learn how to dispose of their unused medicines properly."

Saturday is San Diego's next Prescription Drug Take Back Day. The Sheriff's website lists take-back sites and secure drop-boxes where you can bring your unwanted prescription medications.

The school takeover was followed by an interactive assembly, where students met Aaron Rubin, a student left paralyzed by his abuse of prescription drugs, and his mother Sherrie.

"Aaron overdosed on OxyContin in 2005 and as a result of that, he is now a quadriplegic, unable to talk or communicate the way your or I do," said Sherrie, standing next to her son in his wheelchair who can understand everything going on around him, but can only communicate using two of his fingers. "He was actually in a coma for three-and-a-half weeks. We were planning his funeral. Then they changed the antibiotics up and he started to open his eyes."

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Above: Sherrie Rubin talks to her son, Aaron Rubin, who was left paralyzed after he overdosed on OxyContin in 2005. They presented at the WAKE UP! assembly at San Diego High School on Monday, September 24, 2012.

Sherrie says Aaron was a popular, athletic leader at his high school before his overdose. She thinks he was spared for a higher purpose.

"I'm very grateful that Aaron survived, and we're very blessed. I don't take that blessing lightly," Sherrie said. "I believe that Aaron is here to be able to show students, families, communities, that the abuse and misuse of prescription drugs can alter your life devastatingly."

Leaning down to speak to her son, Sherrie asked Aaron, "If you could go back in high school, would you choose to ever have taken prescription drugs? One for yes, two for no."

Aaron lifts the only body part he can still control: his left hand. He holds up two fingers, signaling his answer: no.

A grant from San Diego-based Millennium Laboratories funded the launch of WAKE UP! at San Diego High on Monday. Next, they'll have similar campaigns at other San Diego high schools, and then head to high schools all over the country. They'll continue to spread the message that Aaron embodies.

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