By MATTHEW MEYER | Reporter
After multiple troubling incidents in which “semi-conscious” students had to be transported from the nurse’s office to the hospital, Palisades Charter High School is warning that abuse of the prescription drug Xanax poses a serious threat to campus health.
That’s according to Principal Dr. Pam Magee and Assistant Principal in charge of discipline Russ Howard.
They spoke with the Palisadian-Post last week about their multi-pronged approach to tackling the drug problem, which includes parent outreach, harsh legal action against those selling the pills on campus and a promise that students who ask for help at school will only receive addiction treatment resources—not disciplinary measures.
Xanax is from the benzodiazepine family, which includes other name-brand anxiety prescriptions such as Valium, Ativan and Klonopin.
Howard told the Post that Pali High has been aware of the drug for more than five years, but that recent semesters have brought “a spike” in students caught with the pills or exhibiting symptoms of potential overdose.
For a time, he continued, the school seemed to have cleared out the most prominent dealers of the drug on campus. But the pills’ size—often a small, segmented rectangle colloquially referred to as a “bar”—and lack of smell make them hard to detect.
Addiction specialists have treated benzodiazepine abuse for decades, but Xanax has seemingly risen in public consciousness as it becomes more prominent in popular culture.
The drug is often associated with a loose sub-genre of hip hop artists dubbed “SoundCloud rap” after the music-streaming platform—though many of the rappers have also come forward to speak about their struggles with addiction and overdose.
And it would be shortsighted to associate the drug with pop culture and traditional dealers without also acknowledging the role of prescription drugs found at home.
Magee told the Post that Pali suspects some students gain access to Xanax from households “not keeping as close of an eye on the medicine cabinet” as they should.
The pills’ status as a legal prescription for acute anxiety and panic attacks makes enforcement even more delicate, Magee said, as she acknowledges it can also be “a legitimate prescription.”
Palisadian physician and certified addiction specialist Dr. Damon Raskin told the Post that he has also seen an increase in Xanax abuse and addiction in recent years.
“It’s a huge problem,” he told the Post, explaining that benzodiazepines are concerning because of their addictive nature and their sedative respiratory effects, which pose risk of death when combined recreationally with other drugs like alcohol or opiates.
While he also treats benzodiazepine addiction in patients that started with legitimate prescriptions, Raskin said a majority start as recreational users.
“Just like with opiates … doctors are now more savvy that these are dangerous drugs,” Raskin said. And while he sees the sense in a legitimate prescription to an elderly woman with panic attacks, for example, he worries about the drug’s presence in her medicine cabinet where a teenage grandchild could find it.
“It’s one of the harder drugs to get off of, as well,” Raskin added. Severe withdrawals can cause seizures.
That’s why it’s important to seek professional guidance in weaning off the drug, the doctor explained. But he emphasized that quitting is possible.
“There’s hope,” said Raskin “There is a way to get people off this stuff. If they need help, they should seek help.”
For their part, Magee and Howard reiterated their commitment to a policy of providing treatment resources, not punishment, to students who come forward voluntarily for help.
The school has four to five mental health specialists who work in tandem with the health office and can refer students to further treatment.
If a student is caught with the drug, Howard said, they’ll get treatment—“but there’s going to be discipline, too.”
The school is asking parents to keep close tabs on prescriptions and remain vigilant and communicative with students about drugs as they continue to address the issue on campus.