Toby McKenna didn't need to break into a house to steal prescription pills back when he was a teenager. He just swiped extras from his mom's cancer medications, then crushed the tablets and snorted them. And when his dad underwent knee surgery, McKenna picked up pain pills from a hospital pharmacy and pocketed half in an elevator on the way to his dad's room.

"I call myself kind of an arm's length drug user/alcoholic," said McKenna, a 28-year-old electronics salesman who has been sober for five years. "If it was within arm's length, I would try it and use it."

Teens and young adults are reaching for prescription drugs more often, sheriffs and therapists say, a trend underscored by last week's shootings of two Little Falls teenagers in a case linked to drug thefts.

Police and treatment officials across Minnesota report a growing number of similar burglaries -- in which thieves bypass expensive TV sets and silverware for pills -- and a burgeoning black market for unused painkillers and stimulants.

"Prescription drug abuse ... is at epidemic proportions," said Dr. Joseph Lee, director of youth services for the Hazelden addiction treatment program. "People would be surprised at the proportion of crimes that are committed, petty and otherwise, in our community, because of drugs."

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse in New York reported this summer that 44 percent of high school students know drug dealers in their schools. A quarter of those dealers peddle prescription pills, making them the second-most common illegal drugs for sale in schools behind marijuana.

In Minnesota, 8 percent of high school senior boys had tried painkillers to get high, and 6 percent had tried stimulants, according to the 2010 Minnesota Student Survey, a health questionnaire compiled by the Minnesota Department of Health.

Common in the suburbs

In a survey of 25,000 students across the metro area last year, the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge found that pill use was up 5 percent over the previous year. Among students ages 11 to 18 who use illegal drugs, 32 percent said they use pills, second only to marijuana.

"It's increased each year," said Adam Pederson, a program manager with the organization. "I think our society is overmedicated. There's this misconception that it's safe because it's medicine."

In the Twin Cities, he said, prescription pill abuse is most common in wealthier western suburbs such as Wayzata and Minnetonka because more affluent families tend to have insurance and access to prescription medications. In the east metro area, he said, students tend to use alcohol and marijuana, while in south-metro suburbs such as Lakeville and Eagan, meth is more common.

Police Chief Dean Mooney in the western suburb of Mound said teens who can't get painkillers -- or have developed a tolerance -- are moving to heroin. Across Lake Minnetonka, police officers have seen a spike in burglaries by people seeking prescription pills or money to fund heroin addictions.

So far this year, the Hennepin Regional Poison Center has been notified of 2,825 instances of Minnesotans misusing prescription drugs. That is more than all of 2011 and an 86 percent increase from 2005. A quarter of the cases involved teens.

Links to heroin

Authorities in Morrison County have not said why Nick Brady, 17, and Haile Kifer, 18, broke into the home of 64-year-old Byron Smith, who is now charged with murdering them in his basement on Thanksgiving Day. But they do believe the teens took pills a day earlier from the home of 68-year-old Richard Johnson. Valuables were bypassed in Johnson's home for pills that treat cholesterol and diabetes. Police found six pill bottles from Johnson's home in Brady's car after the shootings.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has been so concerned about the problem of prescription drug abuse that he has held drug disposal events since 2010 that have netted 9,000 pounds of medications. He has since refined the approach, conducting collections at senior centers and apartments because seniors tend to have numerous medications and are vulnerable to theft by relatives or strangers.

Tales from those events include a woman who said her granddaughter had been getting rid of drugs for her.

"Yeah, right," the skeptical sheriff said. "She's getting rid of them all right."

Stanek said an increase in prescription drug abuse is also fueling a rise in heroin and synthetic drug use. Drug dealers charge more for prescription opiates such as oxycodone, so addicts eventually switch to cheaper and more potent heroin.

"They are the gateway to heroin," Stanek said. "Pick any addict. Come to my jail" and ask them.

Living with the aftermath

McKenna, like his father and relatives before him, often abused alcohol. But in his high school days in Massachusetts, he stole his parents' pills or searched through medicine cabinets of his friends' homes.

"While I wasn't breaking into someone's home," he said, "I was stealing from loved ones."

His addictions led him to flunk out of college. Outpatient counseling didn't help, so in 2007 his parents sent him to Hazelden. In the waiting room for admission McKenna swallowed more than a dozen antidepressants. The resulting seizures dislocated his shoulders.

His month at Hazelden, followed by several months at a halfway house, led to sobriety. McKenna finished college, got a steady job and is engaged.

But someday he will face the dilemma of taking pain meds legitimately. He had surgeries on his injured shoulders during treatment -- with drug counselors doling out his pain meds -- but follow-up surgeries are likely, and then he'll be on his own to use drugs safely. He's hopeful, though; he says the drugs simply feel different when you need them for intended uses.

"You don't get high off them," he said. "They just take care of the pain. I had never experienced that before." 612-673-7744 • 612-673-4141