It has killed a Hollywood actor and been the subject of a Superbowl ad - prescription drug abuse is definitely on the national radar.

Marijuana and alcohol are still more popular on college campuses than prescription drugs, but adolescents who abuse substances for the first time are beginning to choose prescription drugs more often than marijuana, according to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Currently, "a lot of Penn students are taking stimulants to study better," said Kyle Kampman, a psychiatrist at Penn's Charles O'Brien Center for Addiction Treatment.

More and more students are also starting to use opiate prescription drugs to improve their academic performance.

According to Kampman, most students who abuse prescription drugs begin at home, obtaining painkillers such as Percocet from their parents' medicine cabinets.

From there, he said, many move on to more concentrated opiates, such as OxyContin, and a minority end up using illegal drugs, like heroin.

Ken Meehan, a social worker at Penn's Counseling and Psychological Services, said he regularly counsels students about substance abuse. When a student begins using pure oxycodone instead of diluted forms like Percocet. they shift from abusing the opiate to becoming dependent on it, he said.

Meehan said prescription drug addiction requires a slightly different treatment approach than marijuana or alcohol abuse.

"Because of the nature of the drug, it's trickier to talk about moderation . it compels them to behave in a certain way despite their awareness that it's just not good for them."

Students who abuse prescription drugs typically display "a cluster of symptoms," Meehan said, among them social withdrawal, poorer academic performance and weight loss.

"Your priorities will change," Meehan said. "Use of the drug will become primary."

In Meehan's experience, no students abusing prescription drugs have sought counseling on their own.

"Every single time, it was at the urging of someone else," he said.

Most students illegally obtain prescription drugs on the street, Kampman said, from dealers who get them at public pain clinics. So booming is business that "most students who see me say they don't even have to go to the Internet" to buy prescription drugs, he added.

Of the students Kampman treats, he estimates that 60 percent enter remission within a few months "About 20 percent disappear, and about 20 percent keep using while seeing me," he said.

Kampman acknowledged the dangerous perceptions that abet prescription drug abuse. "People need to be aware that sharing meds is not a good idea," he said. "Just because a doctor gives it to you doesn't mean it's 100 percent safe."

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