As the nation wrestles with an opioid crisis, another category of prescription drugs is popping up on Sonoma County school campuses.
A growing number of kids are abusing the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, school and law enforcement officials say, and it’s not just in high schools. It’s part of a class of psychoactive drugs known as benzodiazepine, and they also are creeping into middle schools throughout Sonoma County, where 765 students were suspended this past school year for drugs, including alcohol and marijuana.
Xanax is the most widely abused prescription drug among students, school and law enforcement officials said. Part of the draw is the accessibility.
“It is everywhere,” said Morgan Shepherd, a Social Advocates for Youth certified alcohol and drug counselor who works with students at Piner High School.
Shepherd first noticed about a year ago an uptick in the number of kids abusing Xanax. Now, she said, kids come to her with a Xanax abuse problem nearly every week, most often getting the drug from their family’s medicine cabinet.
She recently spoke to nearly 40 parents at Maria Carrillo High School, where administrators are raising awareness about the drug’s dangers after a student overdosed in December but survived. Shepherd said 80 percent of heroin users started with prescription drugs.
Another Santa Rosa school district student recently was rushed to the hospital after taking too much Xanax, said Sgt. Dave Linscomb, who supervises school resource officers for the Santa Rosa Police Department.
“We have seen that citywide,” Linscomb said.
Petaluma City Schools have seen three student overdoses so far this school year, Student Services Assistant Superintendent Dave Rose said. Two involved marijuana edibles and one Xanax.
Students often turn themselves in to school officials after feeling nausea and other side effects, said Santa Rosa Police Resource Officer Dan Jones, who works on the Maria Carrillo campus. The school then will either call parents or an ambulance. If a student struggles with speaking, he said they’ll err on the side of caution and call the paramedics.
Depending on the amount students ingest and other drugs they mix, Jones said the sedative can be dangerous and, in some cases, lethal.
A 19-year-old Fresno State student died last month after apparently overdosing on Xanax. According to reports, Omar Nemeth spent a day taking pills and smoking marijuana before his younger brother found him unresponsive and slumped over a couch at a fraternity house.
After alcohol and marijuana, prescription drugs are the most misused substance among youth ages 14 and older, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It found last year that 1 in 6 high school seniors previously misused prescription drugs and 1 in 10 seniors did so within the past year.
Prescription drugs are easier to conceal compared to alcohol and marijuana, which is part of the lure, Rose said. He said students also mistakenly believe the medication is safe because doctors prescribe it.
And there’s a growing concern about counterfeit Xanax pills hitting the market laced with the powerful synthetic drug fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“If students don’t see it as harmful, they’re going to partake,” said Rose, whose district also is working with parents, law enforcement and other agencies to combat the drug.