Doctor warns parents to lock up medication to prevent theft by teens

Camille Bains - The Canadian Press

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VANCOUVER – Teenagers who steal prescription medication from a medicine cabinet at home may be at risk of becoming addicted to drugs, says a family doctor who treats chronic substance use.

Dr. William Barakett said parents should lock up their medication and return unused drugs to a pharmacy for disposal.

Parents must ensure their teens aren’t pocketing drugs to mask an emotional disorder such as ADHD, he said.

They also need to take a “good hard look” at whether there’s a family history of addiction, said Barakett, an advisory council member for Drug Free Kids Canada.

He recently testified before a House of Commons committee hearing on marijuana and said many of his patients began smoking pot as young as 12 before stealing their parents’ medication.

Barakett told the committee the federal government’s plan to legalize recreational cannabis should include extensive public-education campaigns about the risks of pot consumption on adolescent brains.

The message about the dangers of teens using medication also needs to get out, especially during the current opioid epidemic, he said in an interview from Knowlton, Que.

“If there are opioids left in the medicine chest at home adventurous kids are going to start to play with them,” Barakett said, adding self-medicating teens who develop an addiction to opioid painkillers may seek the drugs elsewhere.

“I’ve had kids who are addicted to opioids in pill form and I ask them, ‘Where do you obtain it?’ Some of them have told me, ‘We hang around old folks’ homes.’ ”

Seniors who no longer need their drugs have been known to sell them to teens for extra cash, Barakett said.

Teens buying drugs on the street are taking a huge risk because too many substances are laced with the powerful opioid painkiller fentanyl, Barakett said.

A BC Coroners Service report issued Thursday says 17 people between the ages of 10 and 18 died of suspected overdoses between January and August this year. That’s up from 12 deaths last year and five deaths in all of 2015.

The report says the opioid painkiller fentanyl was detected in 81 per cent of all deaths in the province so far this year.

Mike Serr, chairman of the drug advisory committee for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said parents often don’t notice when one or two pills are missing, especially if a drug is taken occasionally to manage pain.

Serr, who is deputy chief of the Abbotsford Police Department, said a mother who spoke at a public forum on fentanyl in the Fraser Valley city warned other parents that her son became addicted to opioids after stealing her medication.

“There weren’t too many dry eyes in the room,” he said of the forum last spring, adding the teen ended up living on the streets but he is now on the road to recovery.

Kerr said teens who start stealing their parents’ medication often repeat the same behaviour at other relatives’ and friends’ homes and may even start selling the drugs.

Many police departments have held annual days for people to bring in their unused drugs for disposal but Kerr said lack of resources mean few forces currently participate in what they consider an important community event.

Marc Paris, executive director of Drug Free Kids Canada, said he’s heard stories of teens stealing their parents’ drugs and taking them to so-called pill parties.

“They put them in a big jar and start popping pills to see what kind of an effect it has. They don’t know what they’re taking. Sometimes they end up in emergency rooms and they can’t tell the doctor what they took.”

Paris suggested parents use a lock box or other secure place to stow away opioids and drugs such Tylenol with codeine that they may be keeping for occasional pain.

It’s also important for parents to have ongoing conversations with their kids about drugs, he said.

“It’s making sure that you’re in tune with what the kids are facing at the schoolyard, at parties, on the street. Ask, ‘If you were at a party and somebody offered you a pill what would you do?’ ”

— Follow @CamilleBains1 on Twitter.