This is the first in a week-long, five-part series about the abuse of heroin and other opiates among New Jersey’s youth. Stacy Proebstle talks to recovering addicts, parents, prevention specialists, substance-abuse professionals and law enforcement officers to address current trends and issues along with possible solutions. Read the full series here.

Prescription drug abuse is the nation’s fastest growing drug problem and in New Jersey its reached epidemic proportions. In part one of a week-long series, we look at a growing health issue among our youth – painkiller addiction.

In 2010, 2 million people reported using prescription painkillers non-medically for the first time within the last year, nearly 5,500 a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

One person dies every 19 minutes from prescription drug abuse in the U.S, the CDC says.

“Emergency room visits have doubled in the last five years from young people abusing prescription drugs” said Angelo Valente, executive director of the Partnership For A Drug Free New Jersey.

“Percocet, Vicodin, Oxycontin, Xanax, these are prescription drugs that teens are taking and abusing, mixing with alcohol at dangerous levels” he said.

The access point is your medicine cabinet.

“A majority of teens that are using prescription drugs, 70% said they got in from a friend or relative,” said Steven Liga, executive director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of Middlesex County.

Liga said teens have a false sense of safety when experimenting with drugs they find at home.

“There’s this misconception that because these drugs are manufactured, and FDA approved that they’re safe. Most people don’t realize that Adderall and Ritalin are in the same class as cocaine and morphine.”

No region of the state is immune to the problem.

“Rural, suburban, urban areas, it’s happening everywhere. What we’re finding throughout the state of New Jersey is that young people are experimenting and abusing prescription drugs no matter where they live” said Valente.

The alarming trend is that teens that start out abusing prescription painkillers often turn to heroin.

In June 2011, the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation reported that a growing number of young people are abusing prescription drugs, and noted a significant trend in which the practice has led to increases, not only in the number of young people addicted to painkillers, but to the number of young people using heroin as well.

“They have raided the medicine cabinet and realized that heroin is a lot cheaper, they can still get that high and support their habit” said Liga.

“We have noticed a significant increase in the number of teens and young adults moving on from abusing prescription drugs to heroin, it has become a big problem statewide” added Valente.