Generation Rx

You couldn't miss him: a teenager dressed always in black, with Elvis sideburns and a hard-charging way of bounding up the stairs, as if life were moving too slowly for him. In the same class as my oldest son at the Science and Engineering Magnet at Townview, occasionally at our house for all-night LAN parties, Luke Stone was likable, smart and had an appetite for adventure, the guy willing to try anything once. He was a natural leader, a person who drew people from all walks of life into his orbit with his energy and enthusiasm.

He also had a sweet side. He'd grown up going to church and carried a picture of Jesus in his wallet. He was drawn to beautiful, troubled girlfriends who needed rescuing. Luke Stone was your basic good kid.

But on May 14 a year ago, when Luke was a 20-year-old student at the University of Texas at Dallas, his daring nature killed him. The coroner's verdict: accidental drug overdose.

This isn't another "drugs are bad for you" story. It is a trip into another world, one far different from that of Luke's parents--even though they'd grown up in the '60s and '70s and had their own encounters with illegal drugs. David and Sondra Stone viewed their experimentation, particularly with marijuana, as a normal part of growing up. They didn't want their kids to become addicts, of course, but as long as they stayed away from "hard drugs" like cocaine and heroin, they figured the kids would come out all right, just like they had.

Luke Stone's parents know that isn't true anymore. They didn't realize the landscape of substance abuse has radically changed.

Today, kids Luke's age swim in a sea of psychotropic pharmacology--pills, potions and powders legally prescribed for everything from depression to attention deficit disorder. When they want to get high, they're more likely to turn to benzodiazepines, a class of drugs like Valium that treat anxiety and panic attacks. Instead of shooting heroin, they score synthetic opiates such as Vicodin, Percocet, Dilaudid or Tylenol with codeine. To get a buzz or pull an all-nighter for an exam, they pop pills like Ritalin and Adderall, amphetamines that treat ADD.

It makes sense. You don't have to find a drug dealer to get Xanax. You just have to rummage in Mom's medicine chest. You don't need to sneak around to score Adderall. A pediatrician prescribed it because you were driving your teachers crazy. Why not trade a few Adderall to your roommate, under the care of a psychiatrist for panic disorder, for some of his Xanax?

If you get caught--well, parents who discover a kid snitching a Lortab react differently from those who find a crack pipe or syringe.

The explosion in pharmaceuticals has been magnified by the Internet. Not only are there more psychotropic drugs to choose from, it's easier than ever to learn what to take, how much to take and what effects to anticipate. Luke scoured sites like erowid.org--"documenting the complex relationship between humans and psychoactives"--for information and "trip reports" on everything from peyote to Percocet. From there, teens are one click away from an illegal online pharmacy, a cyber medicine cabinet offering quick, discreet delivery.

A 2004 study at Columbia University found that only 6 percent of 157 Web sites selling medications actually required a prescription. And last month the DEA arrested 20 people, from Tyler, Texas, to Bombay, India, as part of "Operation Cyber Chase," targeting an illegal international ring that used more than 200 Web sites to distribute prescription narcotics, amphetamines and steroids.

Web sites to replace them will pop up overnight like psilocybin mushrooms sprouting in a cow patty.

Fascinated by illicit pharmaceuticals, Luke created a "drug log" of those he'd tried and their effects. He wasn't alone. Most of his friends at UTD used pills--in addition to the college mainstays of pot and alcohol--and turned to Luke for information. He knew what medications could be taken together and what to stay away from. "Luke was so smart," one friend says.

Intelligence, experimentation and a young man's belief in his own immortality seduced Luke into believing he knew what he was doing and could control the outcome.

But dead people don't post trip reports on the Internet.

At age 13, Luke Stone spent 17 days in Australia and New Zealand, one of the kids chosen for a "student ambassador" program. "He came home a different kid, a world traveler, you know," says his mother, Sondra Stone Fishman, who works out of her Oak Cliff home doing computer billing for doctors. Talking about Luke, Sondra flashes between pride and sudden grief, in a place she calls "beyond tears."

The older of her two sons, Luke had never been ordinary: whip-smart, reading before he went to kindergarten, playing chess at 7. They finally put Luke in a Montessori school to challenge him more. An athlete built like a brick outhouse, stocky and strong, Luke was the kid who had to be the pitcher in baseball or the goalie in roller hockey. He thrived on being in the pressure point, the one who made the difference in the game.