How do prescription drug abusers access medications?

Stacy Wiegman, PharmD
Pharmacy Specialist

Sadly, many teenagers who abuse medications steal from their own parents or friends.  They think that prescription medications are safer than street drugs like heroin or cocaine.  However, drugs like Percocet (oxycodone/acetaminophen) are structurally related to heroin and cocaine and can be just as addictive.

Theft from pharmacies is probably a small way for abusers to get medications.  Many abusers have legitimate prescriptions;  however, a common pattern is for them to go to multiple doctors and use multiple pharmacies.  That way, no one notices their excessive use, and they may get away with it for a long time.

Almost all prescription drugs involved in overdoses come from prescriptions originally; very few come from pharmacy theft. However, once they are prescribed and dispensed, prescription drugs are frequently diverted to people using them without prescriptions. More than three out of four people who misuse prescription painkillers use drugs prescribed to someone else. In addition, some people who abuse prescription drugs obtain large quantities of medication by getting prescriptions from multiple prescribers and pharmacies—a practice known as “doctor shopping.” Many states also report problems with "pill mills" where doctors prescribe large quantities of painkillers to people who don’t need them medically. Most prescription painkillers are prescribed by primary care and internal medicine doctors and dentists, not specialists.

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