Study: Prescription Drug Abuse Begins with Pills from Family, Friends

More than 70 percent of people who abuse prescription painkillers first obtain the drugs from the family medicine cabinet or are given pills by friends or relatives, according to a new government study released by the DEA. The findings are based on a two-year national survey of approximately 70,000 Americans over the age of 12.

Reliance on family and friends for prescription drugs is most common among occasional abusers (those who abuse drugs less than once a week) and new abusers. When abuse becomes chronic, many turn to doctors, the Internet or drug dealers as a source for prescription drugs. Among chronic abusers, about 40 percent continue to obtain pills from friends and relatives. The pills are either given freely or taken without the owner’s knowledge.

Approximately 7 million American are currently believed to be prescription drug abusers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that prescription drugs are responsible for about 75 percent of all fatal drug overdoses in the nation. This is more than the overdose rate for cocaine and heroin combined. Three quarters of all prescription drug overdoses are caused by narcotic painkillers like OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin.

Michele Leonhart, head of the DEA, calls prescription drug addiction one of the greatest drug threats ever faced by the nation. Drug agencies have united in an attempt to educate the public on the importance of securing prescription drugs and disposing of them properly when no longer needed. Unfortunately, Congress recently turned down President Obama’s request for $20 million for a drug disposal media campaign to be run from the White House Office of Drug Control Policy.

The new report from the DEA was issued in preparation for a DEA-sponsored National Prescription Drug Take Back Day scheduled for April 28, 2012. More than 5,000 collection sites will be set up across the country where the public can dispose of prescription drugs that are expired or no longer needed. Other methods of discarding drugs, such as washing them down a sink, flushing them or throwing them in the trash pose health, safety and environmental risks. According to DEA spokesperson Barbara Carreno, drugs that are tossed in the trash can be retrieved and abused and drugs that are flushed can contaminate the water supply.

The National Take Back Day drug disposal service is free and anonymous. In three previous Take Back events, the DEA collected and safely disposed of about a million pounds of prescription drugs. Many drug experts, including American Medical Association president Dr. Peter W. Carmel, believe that a national program needs to be established that will help people dispose of unused drugs throughout the year. The AMA supports legislation that would support such a program as part of a national strategy for fighting prescription drug abuse.