Drug abuse experts say the arrest of Al Gore's son underscores the growing problem of prescription drug abuse among America's youth. College students use the stimulant Adderall, an attention deficit drug, to get a speedy high or pull all-nighters.
"Al Gore's son is just like everyone else's," said Dr. Donald Misch, director of health services at Northwestern University in Evanston. "The only thing missing was the No. 1 abused drug, which is alcohol."
Students commonly pair pills with beer and cigarettes, experts say. They trade tips about the effects of prescription drugs on networking sites like Facebook and trade pills they've stolen from home medicine cabinets, ordered on the Internet or taken from friends with legitimate prescriptions.
Prescription drug abuse among 18- to 25-year-olds rose 17 percent from 2002 to 2005, according to the White House drug policy office. In 2004 and again in 2005, there were more new abusers of prescription drugs than new users of any illicit drug.
Young people mistakenly believe prescription drugs are safer than street drugs, doctors say. But accidental prescription drug deaths are rising and students who abuse pills are more likely to drive fast, binge-drink and engage in other dangerous behaviors.
The White House plans a national advertising campaign aimed at getting parents to clean out their medicine cabinets and lock up any prescription drugs they need, said deputy drug czar Scott Burns.
"We found in focus groups of young people across the country that in large measure they're getting the drugs from their own medicine cabinets and the Internet," Burns said. Some Web pharmacies deliver ordered drugs without legitimate prescriptions, but other sites steal credit card information and never fill orders, Burns said.
Nearly 60 percent of Americans who report abusing prescription drugs say they get them from friends or family, according to the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the largest survey on substance abuse in the country with about 70,000 participants.
According to another survey, the 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, there are 14.6 million current marijuana users and 6.4 million prescription drug abusers, with most prescription drug abusers using painkillers such as Vicodin. Cocaine ranked third, with 2.4 million current users.
The same survey found the annual average number of new abusers of prescription pain relievers was 2.4 million, edging out the 2.1 million new users of marijuana.
Al Gore III, 24, was driving about 100 mph on the San Diego Freeway when he was pulled over Wednesday. He was arrested for illegally possessing marijuana and prescription drugs. While a student at Harvard University, he was arrested in 2003 for marijuana possession.
Former Vice President Al Gore said Thursday his son is getting treatment.
The drugs police say they found when they searched the young Gore's car are commonly found on campus, according to experts.
Vicodin, a brand name for acetaminophen and hydrocodone, is a painkiller that works by attaching to opioid receptors in the brain; it can be addictive and can bring on a feeling of euphoria when abused. Xanax (alprazolam) and Valium (diazepam) are both used to treat anxiety and can cause withdrawal symptoms when stopped suddenly; they produce feelings of relaxation or drowsiness.
Adderall (dextroamphetamine and amphetamine) is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and can cause sudden death or serious heart problems, especially if misused. Students crush and snort it to get a fast rush or swallow the pills to stay awake for a late night of studying.
Abuse of Adderall and other prescription stimulants is more common on college campuses than among young adults not attending college, experts say.
A study published in the medical journal Addiction in 2005 found that rates of abuse of prescription stimulants including Adderall were higher at northeastern colleges and schools with more competitive admission standards. About 4 percent of college students in that study reported non-medical use of prescription stimulants in the past year.
Al Gore III's arrest may raise awareness among parents, Misch said.
"This is an opportunity for people to understand this is happening in your household," he said. "These are your kids. The drug dealers they're going to are their doctors, their parents and their friends."