Over half of the prescription pain relievers used illicitly in 2012 were obtained from a friend or relative for free, according to a new federal survey of drug use in the United States. Even the painkillers that were bought were twice as likely to be purchased from a friend or relative than a drug dealer.
The report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also found that binge drinking and the illegal use of prescription drugs by young Americans continues to decline, but the use of marijuana and heroin is increasing.
“These findings show that while we have made progress in preventing some aspects of substance abuse we must redouble our efforts to reduce and eliminate all forms of it throughout our nation,” said Pamela Hyde, SAMHSA administrator.
While the rate (5.3%) of nonmedical use of prescription drugs by young adults aged 18 to 25 was similar to rates in 2010 and 2011, it was lower than in 2009 (6.4%). Binge drinking among teens was also down.
Still, the government reports that nearly one in ten teens admitted using an illicit drug during the month prior to being surveyed. And drug diversion remains a serious problem, especially with pain relievers.
Among people aged 12 or older who used pain relievers illicitly in the last 12 months, the survey found:
- 54% obtained them from a friend or relative for free
- 11% bought them from a friend or relative
- 4% bought them from a drug dealer or stranger
- 20% obtained them through a prescription from a doctor
The statistics are no surprise to Charlie Cichon, executive director of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, a non-profit that educates and trains health care providers and law enforcement agencies about drug diversion.
“They get it from a friend. They’re not purchasing that product from someone in the bad part of town. And that friend probably got it from the medicine cabinet,” Cichon told National Pain Report during PAINWeek, a national conference in Las Vegas attended by 2,000 practitioners in the field of pain management.
Cichon says the diverted pain medication is often leftover from a surgery or illness. Rather than being thrown out or disposed of, the unused drugs could sit in a medicine cabinet for years – becoming a tempting target for friends, family members or neighbors who ask to use the bathroom.
Cichon says physicians need to be more aware of how pain relievers are being diverted. In addition to advising patients how and when to take pain medication, he says doctors should be telling them how to store and dispose of unused pills.
“I really don’t think the physicians prescribing it legitimately know that this 30 or 60 count pill bottle has this dollar amount put on it, if it can be used illegally. Some of these bottles can go for anywhere from $300 to $2,000,” said Cichon.
While the street demand for pain relievers is strong, SAMHSA researchers say marijuana remains the drug of choice, with 7.3% of Americans using pot in 2012. That’s an increase of 1.5% in five years. Marijuana use rose in nearly every age group in that same period, but fell slightly in 2012 among those aged 12 to 17.
The use of heroin also shows a resurgence, with the number of people 12 and older taking the drug nearly doubling from 373,000 in 2007 to 669,000 in 2012.
Another recent SAMHSA study found a “strong association” between the abuse of painkillers and heroin. Abusers of pain medication are 19 times more likely to try heroin than non-abusers. About 3.6% of the people who abused pain relievers tried heroin within five years.
The study also found that many Americans who need treatment for a substance abuse are not getting any. An estimated 23 million Americans needed treatment for abusing drugs or alcohol in 2012, but only 2.5 million received it in a specialized treatment setting.
Researchers, however, were able to find in a silver ling in some of the statistics.
Tobacco use among teens under 18 years of age fell from 15% in 2002 to 8.6% in 2012. And the number of young people with substance dependence or abuse in the 12 to 17 age group dropped from nearly 9% to about 6% over the same period.
“For the first time in a decade, we are seeing real and significant reductions in the abuse of prescription drugs in America,” said Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
“Expanding prevention, treatment, and support for people in recovery for substance use disorders will be our guide as we work to address other emerging challenges, including the recent uptick in heroin use shown in this survey.”