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Massachusetts' hidden addiction


(FOX 25 / - Open up the medicine cabinet, and they are probably there.  It is a silent killer that is stealing the innocence, and even taking the lives of so many of young people.  They are pills, prescription painkillers, opiates.  They have names known to all: Viccodin, Percocet, and of course, Oxycontin.

Joanne Peterson is the founder of Learn to Cope which is a support group with seven chapters in Massachusetts dedicated to helping the families of loved ones addicted to these drugs. 

"It's funny, a lot of us were the families who did everything we thought we were supposed to do in order to keep our kids safe.  We taught them about drug use, alcohol use, when Oxycontin hit in the late 90s and early 2000s none of us had heard about it, so we couldn't warn our kids," Peterson said.

It is no longer sneaking beers or smoking pot at a party, but popping a pill that could be your child's first high. 

"The average teenager, about half of them start with marijuana, and the other half start with prescription drugs, almost always, painkillers.  So that gives us a sense of how big this problem is and how, almost conventional this problem has become for our teenagers, and that's problematic because they're so powerful," Dr. Timothy Wilens, Director of Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, told FOX 25. 

A medicine cabinet could be their first dealer.  Experts say 70 percent of kids get their drugs from friends or relatives, when that runs out, a single painkiller could have a street value of $80, and when the money runs out, the natural next step, for so many, is a bag of heroin.  A bag could cost less than $10.

"It's been interesting, in other parts of the country heroin dealers have actually targeted parts of the country where they have seen high prescription drug issues as a market opportunity, quite honestly, to transition people to heroin," said Michael Botticelli, the Director of the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. 

The opiate addiction problem in Massachusetts is a big one.  It is the number one reason people seek treatment in the state, above alcohol, and all other drugs.  Studies show that Eastern Massachusetts has more heroin-related emergency room visits and more admissions to state treatment programs for prescription drug addiction than most of the country. 

"The more drug you have available in the community, the more likely you are to have abuse issues, and through drug trafficking patterns, quite honestly, fairly widespread availability of very low cost, very high purity heroin here in Massachusetts and New England," Botticelli said.

So why Massachusetts?  Some point to its many ports, widespread access to healthcare, and Route 95, a major drug trafficking route up the Eastern Seaboard, cuts right through the state.

"I think they're being brought in from other states where it's easier to purchase them, and they're being brought into the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and I think some states have changed their laws, which is a great thing, but there's no uniform law across the United States yet," said Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz. 

Experts urge parents to educate their kids on the dangers of prescription drug abuse.  Watch for warning signs, including small pupils, weight loss, and sickness.

The number one thing, don't hold onto old pain medication, especially if there are young people at home, because the temptation from the medicine cabinet can impact any family, any time, anywhere. 

"You could walk into any one of the homes probably where this has happened and there'd be trophies on the mantle and pictures of them in sports, in dance class and family photos and it's really a sad situation," Peterson said.