Friends, Relatives Chief Sources of Prescription Drugs for Abusers

Prescription drug abuse is the term commonly used to describe the unauthorized or improper use of medications that only doctors can legally distribute. Some people abuse prescription medications for recreational purposes, while others use them in an attempt to treat real or perceived health concerns. With the help a project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration tracks the methods by which Americans age 12 or older obtain the prescription substances they abuse.

The Basics

Prescription drug abuse can take one of three forms: use of a medication prescribed for another person, overconsumption or other misuse of a properly prescribed medication and use of a medication for recreational or non-medical reasons. Figures compiled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse show that the three classes of prescription medication most frequently targeted for abuse in the U.S. are opioid painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, sedative-hypnotics and tranquilizers such as sleeping aids and benzodiazepines, and stimulants such as amphetamine and the attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) treatments Adderall and Ritalin. Prescription cough suppressants that contain an ingredient called dextromethorphan are also fairly common targets for abuse.

In many cases, people abuse prescription medications because they perceive the use/misuse of these medications as inherently less risky than the use of illegal drugs such as heroin or cocaine. However, just like heroin, cocaine and a range of other illegal substances, essentially all commonly abused prescription medications can trigger addiction in repeat abusers by doing such things as altering basic brain chemistry and fostering a pattern of behavior highly oriented around the acquisition and use of the substance in question. In addition, misuse of these medications frequently comes with a host of other possible health complications, some of which can result in complete incapacitation or death. For example, opioid painkiller abuse can potentially lead to a severe, sometimes fatal reduction in the normal breathing rate. Prescription stimulant abuse can potentially lead to such things as heart attacks, strokes or heart failure.

Sources of Abused Medications

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health contains a series of questions designed to uncover the sources of the prescription medications abused by Americans age 12 or older. Many of these questions center on the abuse of opioid painkillers, although sources for all other abused medications are also considered. According to figures gathered from the NSDUH in 2011-2012 (the most recent period of time for which figures are available), 54 percent of abused prescription opioids come free of charge from either a relative of the abuser or a friend of the abuser who knowingly provides medication access. In the overwhelming number of cases (82.2 percent), the relative or friend gets his or her opioid prescription from a single doctor. In descending order, the other most likely places for a friend or relative to acquire prescription opioid medications are from another friend or relative, from multiple doctors and from a stranger or known drug dealer.

The second most common source of abused prescription opioids is an abuser’s own prescribing physician. In descending order, the other most likely sources are theft or purchase from a friend or relative, purchase from a stranger or drug dealer, multiple prescriptions filled out by different doctors and Internet websites that act as online “pill mills.” In addition, roughly 5.1 percent of all abused prescription opioids come from what survey respondents describe as “other” sources. Most abusers of prescription stimulants and prescription sedative-hypnotics and tranquilizers also obtain those medications from a friend or relative who knowingly provides access and does not charge a fee for that access. As with prescription opioids, most of the friends and relatives who function as medication sources get their prescriptions from a single doctor.


The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that people who regularly abuse prescription opioids may substantially increase their chances of eventually getting addicted to the powerful opioid narcotic heroin. This risk arises because opioid medications and heroin access the same areas in the brain and body to produce their effects. It appears that some prescription opioid abusers actually transition into heroin use because they have an easier time acquiring heroin and spend less on the drug than they would on opioid medications.

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