School presentation details dangers of prescription drugs

Feb. 28, 2013 @ 04:58 AM

As police crack down harder on street drugs, individuals of all ages are turning to prescription drugs. And nowhere is the issue more pressing, according to a presentation that's making the rounds in Chatham County, than in high schools.

Tuesday morning, the entire student body of Chatham Central High School, located in rural Bear Creek about halfway between Sanford and Siler City, sat silently watching a collection of video interviews with doctors, students and former drug abusers that was compiled by school officials and a team of nursing students from UNC-Chapel Hill.

After the videos addressed some of the issues leading to drug abuse — anxiety, depression, peer pressure, thrill seeking and stress — Principal Mitchell Stensland told the students his main goal was not to punish drug users, but to help them. While he can go out and look for signs of students buying, selling or using drugs, he said, he'd much rather see students help each other, even if that means telling a teacher or administrator that a classmate has a problem.

Mike Szpunar, a shift supervisor with the Chatham County Sheriff's Office who also serves as Chatham Central's student resource officer, said he's aware that some students drink, smoke or take pills. But based on monthly reports the Sheriff's Office receives, he said, Chatham Central students have the fewest problems of any local school.

"I'll tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, this is the best of any of the schools in the county," he said, "and you have only yourselves to thank for that."

Stensland agreed, saying it goes beyond just drugs and crime — the school's 400-plus students are, he said, the closest group he's seen.

But even with all the praise, worries remain. Stensland said high school is the launching pad of life, warning students that a drug conviction can send students on a trajectory to crash and burn. It's illegal to vote or own a gun with a felony, he noted, just as it's basically impossible to get a government job, get a scholarship or even go to college. Plus, he said — getting the crowd of high schoolers riled up — if someone uses a car to sell drugs, the police can and will confiscate and sell it.

According to the N.C. Department of Justice, drug overdoses are the state's second leading cause of accidental death behind motor vehicle accidents, and prescription pills are involved in 80 percent of fatal overdoses.

"We're seeing, like high schools around the country, fewer traditional illegal drugs and more prescription drugs because they're easier to get a hold of," Chatham County Schools Public Information Officer Beth McCullough said. "We have had some students pay heavy prices."

Darla Cole, the lead student resource officer in Lee County, said prescription pill usage in Lee County Schools actually appears to be down this year compared to recent years, when it was a serious issue. Instead, she said, marijuana has become the drug of choice once again.

"I don't know if it's cyclical or what, but it seems like we've seen more marijuana and less of other things," she said, noting that the shift could be a combination of students seeing the life-altering effects of pills on fellow students when pills were so popular two or three years ago, as well as a general loss of the taboo surrounding marijuana due to recent legalization efforts.

"I've even had kids say to me, 'It's legal in Colorado,'" she said. "But I say, 'Well, we're not in Colorado."

In 2011, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services, more than 1,100 North Carolinians died from drug overdoses. That's an increase of nearly 300 percent since 1999, when the availability of street drugs like crack cocaine and heroin dropped, according to the department.

In Lee County, however, there's been a return to the old days because of local law enforcement's intense campaign against prescription drug abuse.

"In the last six to eight months, there has been a drastic increase in heroin use and sells," Captain John Holly, of the Lee County Sheriff's Narcotics Division, said in January, explaining that heroin is cheaper than painkillers but has similar effects.

The local crackdown on prescription drug abuse is part of a statewide effort that came to a head in October when, prompted by a 400 percent increase in hospital admissions due to pills in the past decade, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper declared prescription pill abuse an epidemic.