QUINCY — On a recent Tuesday morning, Quincy Police Officer Don Sautter talked about prescription drug abuse in a classroom of fifth-graders at the Wollaston Elementary School.
“What can happen if people get addicted to prescription medicine?” Sautter asked the students in Room 15.
An 11-year-old girl in the front row held her arm up high, eager to provide the answer.
“They can die,” she said.
The children were reviewing material from a booklet titled “Be Safe with Over-the-Counter and Prescription Medicine,” a modern component of DARE, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program developed in 1983 in Los Angeles.
South of Boston, the DARE program is a familiar teaching tool for children in a number of school districts, including Duxbury, Hanover, Hingham, Hull, Milton, Plympton, Quincy, Randolph, Scituate, and West Bridgewater. At least 75 percent of the nation’s school districts use the police-taught program to try to prevent young people from abusing alcohol and marijuana, according to DARE America.
Its traditional curriculum now includes an additional unit on prescription drug abuse, which Sautter started teaching about two years ago, relying on add-on learning tools such as the pamphlet used by the fifth-graders in Room 15. About 1,500 Quincy students go through the DARE program each year.
“We’re seeing kids getting involved with prescription drugs as early as seventh or eighth grade,” said Sautter, a DARE officer in Quincy for a dozen years.
“It is important to teach them about this stuff before they’re exposed to it in middle school when groups of kids start breaking off and experimenting,” he added. He works with Officer John Grazioso, who teaches seventh-graders.
“It’s one of the biggest problems we’re seeing with kids in middle school and high school — especially with painkillers. They think because it’s a medication it can’t hurt you, and they’re taking this stuff right out of the medicine cabinet — it’s no longer off limits,” said Sautter.
But prescription painkillers are synthesized using one of the highly addictive derivatives of the opium poppy plant, which include morphine, codeine, and thebaine. OxyContin is synthesized from thebaine. The street drug heroin is synthesized from morphine.
Young people getting involved with opiate narcotics is a deadlier problem than alcohol or marijuana abuse, a reality often cited by Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey, whose office covers 28 communities south and west of Boston. Every community in Norfolk County except two had an opiate death in 2008, and Morrissey has declared, “It is killing our young people.”
He and various local law enforcement officials have said that young people often get caught up with prescription pills — particularly opiate narcotics, such as OxyContin — and switch from abusing pills to snorting or shooting heroin as a cheaper alternative, since opiate pills on the street cost an addict an average of $250 per day while a bag of heroin is $10.
In April and May, Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray and state Senator John Keenan of Quincy held 50 town hall meetings across Massachusetts to address underage prescription drug and alcohol abuse, now considered epidemic.
One out of every five teenagers in the United States abuses prescription drugs, according to a 2009 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There was a 20 percent increase in the number of people 12 and older in the United States abusing pain relievers between 2002 and 2009, the study also found.
Overall, the deaths from opiate-related addictions in Massachusetts have been staggering: A 2009 report by the Legislature’s Massachusetts OxyContin and Heroin Commission pointed out that between 2002 and 2007, 3,265 people died from opiate-related overdoses during the same five-year time period that left 78 citizens killed in two wars overseas, a ratio of 42 to 1.
Meanwhile, despite public outcries about the need to prevent youths from developing an addiction to dangerous prescription drugs, DARE programs have been cut or skipped over for an alternate prevention model or nothing at all in many south-area communities — including Abington, Braintree, Carver, Cohasset, Holbrook, Norwell, Pembroke, Plymouth, and Weymouth.
Several of those towns, including Holbrook, struggled unsuccessfully to keep their DARE program running after the state government cut funding for many prevention efforts in 2004, including $4.3 million for DARE programs, leaving 125 communities to either remove police from the schools or secure funding from municipal government, local businesses and organizations, and individual citizens.
The cost of placing a DARE officer in the school system varies depending on the number of days he or she is dedicated to the classroom; however, the price tag was too high in many cases.
“We tried to fund-raise, but we were unable to raise enough money to keep the program going,” said Holbrook Police Chief William D. Marble Jr., who dropped the program in 2004.
In Carver, the police dropped DARE four or five years ago because the department was unable to hold onto it during tough fiscal times, said Police Chief Michael Miksch.
“We couldn’t afford to fund it ourselves. We did have a full-time officer in the schools but had to cut that because of budget issues,” he said.
The DARE curriculum is not without its critics — even though it remains popular with parents, it is considered outdated and inadequate by many people.
Several research studies have found the program ineffective, including a study commissioned by the National Institute of Justice as well as a Northeastern University study that focused on DARE programs in Massachusetts, both conducted in the 1990s.
DARE program executives have refuted various assertions of ineffectiveness for years, suggesting it is difficult to measure accurately the program’s impact on young minds, and the back-and-forth has waged on while, on a local level, officers such as Sautter have enthusiastically entered classrooms and talked to fifth-grade students for 17 weekly sessions.
“People have studied how it works over the years, and some say it’s no different for kids with or without the program,” said Marble, who was the DARE officer in Carver before program funding was cut by the state.
“I thought it was good. It was an effective program, teaching kids about the consequences of their actions,” he said.
In Room 15 at Wollaston Elementary, Sautter quizzed students about how to identify and avoid prescription drug abuse before asking if they could think of a particular group that adults might not want to get hold of this type of medication.
“Teenagers,” the class said in unison.
“Teenagers might take prescription medication to feel strange or weird. They might hear from friends that it’s cool,” Sautter said. “That’s what I am more concerned about with you guys. I’m not so concerned you’ll take the wrong medicine by accident as that, when you get older, you might want to take a medication because the other teenagers tell you it’s cool.”
After class, a group of five students talked about the prescription drug problem at a side table in a room filled with the trappings of childhood: small desks with pencil boxes; a color-coded chart for good behavior; crayon drawings on the walls. The mood among the students was somber.
“I’ve heard a lot of kids get into it and I’m scared that if I get the wrong friends, I’ll get into it,” Jenny Tran, 11, said. She was the girl who earlier in class provided the quickest answer about where that leads: death.
“Maybe some kids do it so they can get a fake high,” suggested Paul Clancy, 11. He told the others that he often sees empty prescription bottles when playing in the woods next to his house.
Kayla White, 10, said she, too, has spotted such bottles strewn by the trashcans on her street. “I’m kind of worried children will get into it,” she said.
“Yeah, me, too,” said Hannah Ford, 10. “It’s easy for them to get it. They can get it from their parents.”
llan Valencius, 10, summed up: “Everybody is concerned about peer pressure. Nobody wants to get addicted.”