Tramadol -- a prescription drug that was touted as a safe alternative to powerful opioids like oxycodone -- is of increasing concern to law and addiction experts who say children as young as 8 are experimenting with the painkiller.
This week four Utah junior high schoolers were sent to the hospital after one overdosed on what teens call "ultras" -- slang for a drug marketed under the name Ultram.
Though all the girls are fine, experts say in higher doses, the drug can stop breathing and causes seizures and death.
"While this particular drug was, a few years ago, only rarely mentioned by the teens, it does seem to have exploded in popularity over the past year," said Rick Kirkham, who chronicled his addiction to crack cocaine in the 2006 documentary "TV Junkie" and now educates students about drug use.
"Kids are now much more educated on the more 'out of the cross hairs' prescription drugs readily sitting in their family medicine cabinets," he told ABCNews.com.
Tramadol is a narcotic analgesic, or opioid, that is chemically related to codeine and is used to treat mild to moderate pain. Because of the danger of drugs like oxycodone, doctors are prescribing it more often.
Because the drug is nonscheduled, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration doesn't keep statistics on its use, but lists tramadol as a "drug of concern."
Like other prescriptions drugs, "We're seeing kids as young as 8 and 12 and they are getting it at school," DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney told ABCNews.com. "You've got to figure a lot of kids are lighter and don't have the same metabolism as adults. Adult drugs can be fatal."
"Part of the problem of pharmaceutical drug abuse is because the stigma that there is with cocaine, heroin or crack," said Courtney. "But look at Heath Ledger and Anna Nicole Smith."
More than half of people older than 12 who use pain relievers nonmedically get them free from a relative or friend, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. That troubling trend has spilled down to junior high schoolers.
The teens who were hospitalized in Utah admitted to police that one of the girls had obtained the painkillers at home and brought them to school.
A study that was released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2007 showed Utah was No. 1 in prescription drug abuse, with about 6 percent of the population using drugs without a doctor's order.
It showed 7.88 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds and 13.49 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds used prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons. The number was 4.32 percent for those older than 25.
"I've never seen anything like this before -- four girls at once," said Randy Ripplinger, a spokesman for the Granite School District, where the teens go to Matheson Junior High School. "One of the girls was [in] bad enough condition to be transported to the hospital. Later the principal discovered three others were in on the drug taking and transported the rest of them just so they didn't take any chances."
The girls -- all of them ninth-graders between the ages of 14 and 15 -- "didn't know what they were taking," said Marijean Woolf, principal of the 958-student school. "It surprised me."
One of the teens brought the pill to school in a small, plastic bag and offered it to two of her friends.