Your friend has been feeling a little down, she says, and asks if she can have a few of your tranquilizers to smooth things out. You think, why not? Actually, this is a very dangerous practice and not something you should even consider. Yet it’s amazing how many people don’t give sharing their prescription medications with others a second thought. There’s one overriding reason why you should never share medications that are prescribed only for you and that is that it can result in serious, even fatal consequences to others that take them.
How Sharing Starts
Using the scenario already mentioned, it’s fairly easy to see how medication sharing – and trading – gets its start. You have a circle of friends and you all discuss what’s going on in your lives. All the nitty-gritty details of what the kids are doing or not doing well, how you latest health scare has you tied up in knots, how much your spouse has been traveling, leaving you alone with the kids and the household responsibilities, and so on, is repeated ad infinitum.
One of your friends always has a good idea. You should take this little pill. It’s worked wonders for me. I don’t know, you reply, maybe I shouldn’t. And besides, I don’t have the time or money to go to the doctor right now. I just need a little something to help me get by right now, no big deal. Your friend sympathizes and digs in her purse for her pill container. She fishes out one or two (or a few) and gives them to you. Here, take these. You’ll feel better in no time.
But the medication type, dosage, and frequency have been prescribed for your friend and her specific medical condition – not you and whatever may be going on with your body and mind. How can you hope to “get by” taking meds her doctor ordered for her? This is a foolish and risky proposition you’re entering into. Even if you escape unharmed this time, the fact that you have will lead you to believe you can always get away with sharing medications with others.
Here’s another scenario. Adolescents and teens have access to their parents’ medicine cabinets (and that of their friends’ parents). Pill-sharing parties, called “pharming parties,” where a variety of drugs are dumped in a bowl and teens take them without even knowing what they are, are all the rage these days. And it’s hard to find a group of junior or senior-high school students that don’t have some of dad’s or mom’s medication in their bags or backpacks. Many teens sell painkiller or opioid medications, along with stimulants and tranquilizers. It’s not only a party practice, but an illicit business model as well.
Teens in Great Danger
Guess what happens when your teenage daughter or son decides to buy or is given one of these hardcore opiates such as OxyContin or Vicodin, stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall, and sedatives or tranquilizers like Valium and Xanax – and takes it in combination with alcohol or other drugs? The threat of serious complications is always present, especially overdose, which can prove fatal.
There’s something else about pill sharing and buying and selling of prescription medications for nonmedical purposes (in other words, for use by people other than for whom the medication was prescribed). Teens often see it as a form of entertainment, escape, of going along with the crowd. Some like the way using drugs makes them feel – or not feel, as the case may be. Some want to fit in and succumb easily to peer pressure to use.
And, lest you think the problem of medication sharing is not a threat, consider this: One survey found that nearly one in five teens report intentionally abusing prescription drugs to get high, and one in ten abuses cough medicine. Every day, 2,700 teens try a prescription medication to get high. Today’s teenagers are more likely to have abused prescription medications than a variety of illegal drugs such as Ecstasy, crack, cocaine, and methamphetamine. One in three teens report being offered a prescription or OTC drug for the purpose of abuse and the same number say they have a close friend who abuses prescription painkillers to get high.
The fact is, however, that not all the pill sharing, buying and selling involves legal drugs. The purity of what’s out there on the street varies widely and overdoses are common. As per pill prices (remember the teens selling their parents’ painkillers?) rise, teens often turn to other sources to satisfy their increasing dependence on drugs such as opiate narcotics.
They may, for example, turn to black tar heroin, which arrives in the United States chiefly through Mexican drug cartels and their ubiquitous drug trafficking networks. Black tar heroin is much more pure than it once was, due to refining and manufacturing process improvements, and it creates different effects than white heroin. Users of black tar heroin are at more risk for injection site infections (which can become fatal if untreated), hardening of veins at the injection site, HIV from sharing needles, and other diseases. Overdose is a common problem, since the strength and purity is greater than taking opioids in pill form, such as OxyContin or Vicodin, and the user’s body cannot tolerate the heightened strength.
Mixing pills of various types, uppers, downers, and painkillers with alcohol only compounds the problem. Mixing medications of any type is a foolhardy and dangerous practice, no matter who does it, because in combination, the side-effects and consequences can result in moderate to severe to life-threatening situations.
Cleaning out the Medicine Cabinet
Sometimes medications that were originally prescribed for one member of the family languish in the medicine cabinet for months on end. Pushed to the back and no longer taken, they gather dust and are easily forgotten. This is something that should not be allowed to happen for several reasons.
First, there’s always the danger that someone – your teenager, for example, or one of his or her friends – will scour through the medicine cabinet in search of pills to swap or sell (or use). Since you haven’t used them in many months, you’re not likely to miss any of them if they’re gone. So, this is a temptation and a risk that you can avoid simply by cleaning out the medicine cabinet. End of story.
Second, if you happen to be going through the bathroom cleaning out non-essentials, you may come across this unused container of painkillers (Vicodin is probably the most popular) and think to yourself, “Ah, so that’s where this is. I forgot it was here.” You may be tempted to start taking the painkillers again or share them with your friends for any little ill they may be complaining about. Again, this is a foolish and dangerous practice. Just get rid of the medication. If you’ve stopped taking it, you shouldn’t keep it.
Third, let’s not forget the danger to small children from leftover prescription medication. Lacking the ability to know that taking little brightly colored pills is bad for them, if they somehow get their hands on them – say, you leave them out on the nightstand, intending to dispose of them, but you forget to pick them up – they could become seriously ill, suffer major long-lasting consequences, or die from overdose. Get the thread here? You need to go through your medicine cabinet and take a thorough inventory of all medications. If you no longer need or use them, dispose of them properly.
For those medications that you or other members of the family continue to take as prescribed by your doctor, secure them in a locked cabinet or location. This will avoid pilfering by others or accidental consumption by small children or pets.
Talking to your Kids about the Dangers
Here’s another thing that parents should do: Educate your children – adolescents and teens – about the dangers of using prescription drugs nonmedically. When is the best time to start having these conversations? Experts say the earlier you begin talking with your children, the better. That’s so that they are used to you communicating with them about all kinds of situations, dangers and risks, as they are growing and accumulating knowledge about the world – before something happens and it’s too late.
What are some of the things you should say? Parents have to take into consideration the ages of the children and formulate their discussion accordingly. But many adults and parents don’t understand the dangers of intentionally abusing prescription drugs to get high and, as a result, don’t discuss such dangerous behavior with their children. Experts say that intentionally abusing medications – taking them in order to get high — is no safer than intentionally abusing alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine or other illegal drugs.
Just because a medication has been prescribed for one person doesn’t mean it is safe. The same thing holds true for over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, those sold without the need for a prescription. Many parents and adults feel that because you don’t need a prescription, they must be safe. That’s completely off base.
Does talking with your children about the dangers of intentional use of medications to get high have an effect? According to surveys from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, teens who report that they learn a great deal about the risks of using drugs from their parents say that they are 50 percent less likely to use them. But the same survey finds that less than one-third of teens say they “learn a lot about the risks of drugs” from their parents.
Why are teens abusing drugs intended for use as prescription medication? This all boils down to the four A’s: availability, access, awareness, and attitude.
Drugs are everywhere, so availability doesn’t seem to be a problem for teens looking for prescription drugs to use to get high. They have access via the Internet, their parents’ medicine cabinet, and their friends. Teens today are more aware about drugs because of TV advertising and what they see on the Internet. And teens have the attitude that prescription and OTC drugs are less dangerous to use than illegal substances.
As for age-appropriate discussions to inform your children about the dangers of using prescription and OTC drugs, keep the following in mind:
Pre-school: Children at this age know basic “good” and “bad” concepts. They can understand rules that are simple but cannot grasp complex concepts. They should be taught that they should never put any medicine into their mouths that someone else gives them, unless it’s someone the parents have given permission to do so. Medicines should be kept in a locked cabinet.
Kindergarten through grade 3 (ages 5 through 8): Now is the time when young children begin to see TV ads for medicines. They also hear other people talk about taking medicine. Explain that medication can be useful when someone is sick, but only when taken as the doctor prescribes. Otherwise, they can be hurtful. Reinforce that the child should never take medicine someone else tries to give them, unless the parent has given permission for that person to do so. Start talking about alcohol, tobacco and drugs by giving brief explanations of what they are. Keep all medications, OTC drugs, and vitamins out of reach.
Grades four through six (ages 9 through 11): A startling fact is that at this age, one in seven children has been offered a drug. Now is the time to start giving children more specific information about the dangers of drug use. It’s also a time when they’re more curious about how their body works and are ready to receive more complex information than when they were younger. Talk with children about why some people abuse prescription and OTC drugs. Talk about how such misuse can harm a person’s body and mind. Help them practice different ways of saying “No” to invitations or offers to do drugs by others. Be prepared to answer any questions about your own drug use. Establish rules and enforce consequences about any drug or alcohol use or misuse. Monitor any prescription drug use, lock all medications away, and remind children that prescription and OTC drug use can be just as harmful as illegal drugs when not taken as directed.
Grades 7 through 9 (ages 12 through 14): Trying to fit in and establish their own identity, kids in this age group have been increasingly exposed to drugs and drug use and to seeing older teens doing drugs without any apparent ill effects or consequences. At this age, they may tend to overestimate the number of kids their own age who are doing drugs and may believe they need to use them in order to fit in. Parents should talk with their kids about the bad effects – vomiting, bad taste, not being able to remember what they did, dangers of unwanted sexual behavior – to combat abusing prescription or OTC drugs. Talk about the child’s goals for the future, and how using drugs can sabotage such plans, hurt friendships, jeopardizes job opportunities and more.
Grades 10 through 12 (ages 15 through 17): At this age, teens are much more exposed to other teens doing drugs and have much more opportunity and temptation to do drugs because of a larger peer network because they’re driving. Talk with these teens about the dangers of drug use and driving or riding with a driver who’s been taking drugs and/or alcohol. Mention how drug use can threaten plans for college or a job – since teens at this point are generally thinking about their future. Monitor any prescription drug use and keep all medications in a locked cabinet.
Sharing Meds is Never a Good Idea
In the end, there’s never a good reason to share prescription medications with anyone else. You don’t want to be responsible for the consequences and you’d never be able to forgive yourself if that person suffered serious consequences or died as a result of taking medication prescribed for you.
Statistics may frighten you but it only takes one time for statistics to hit home. It’s simply not worth the risk. The truth is that all medication – prescription and OTC drugs – can be as harmful to a human being as any illegal drugs. Taking them indiscriminately, or to get high, is playing a game of Russian roulette. Sooner or later, there are bound to be tragic consequences.
It’s a tough subject, especially if you have teens that are already beginning to experiment with drug use. You may think that it’s too late to begin a discussion about the dangers of sharing prescription drugs as well as abuse of illegal drugs, but it isn’t. By the same token, get a handle on your own tendency to freely dispense pills you have at your disposal. You’re not doing anyone any favors by handing them out to someone else.
Bottom line: Never share prescription medications with anyone. It’s a bad idea and the results could be tragic.