Study examines painkiller abusers' supply sources

8:53 PM, Apr 24, 2012   |    comments
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First-time abusers of prescription painkillers such as OxyContin most often get the drugs for free from friends or family, while chronic abusers seek doctors or dealers to get their fix, a new federal analysis finds.

More than two thirds of people who said they had gotten high on painkillers for the first time previous year got the pills from family or friends, according to the analysis of two years of data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

"We need to recognize and be aware of what's in our medicine cabinets," says National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske.

The Drug Enforcement Administration will take back unused prescription drugs Saturday at collection sites around the country. In three previous "Take Back" days, the DEA collected about a million pounds of prescription medications, including the painkillers, DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno says.

Kids can retrieve drugs that are tossed in the trash, and studies have found that drugs flushed down the toilet can contaminate the water supply, Carreno says. The DEA will retrieve the drugs from the collection sites, which are staffed by police, and destroy them at incinerators approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Medicine cabinets are where a lot of kids who start abusing medication get their pills. This is an opportunity to dispose of these drugs properly, no questions asked," she says. "We're not the slightest bit interested in the information on the bottles."

To find a collection site, visit

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the largest federal study of drug abuse, estimates 2.4 million Americans start abusing prescription drugs each year. About a third of the new users are teenagers. Nearly 6% of young adults 18 to 25 and 3% of teens report regularly getting high on prescription drugs. Monitoring the Future, the largest study of high school students, found that more than half of the 12th-graders who abused prescription pain drugs say family members or friends gave them or sold them the painkillers.

"As the addiction progresses, they move from the free pills to doctor shopping to buying it from a dealer," Kerlikowske says.

The analysis finds:

•Among occasional abusers - people who got high on pain relievers less than once a week in the past year - 66% say they got their pills for free or stole them from a friend or relative.

•Among chronic abusers, 28% say they purchased the pain pills from a friend, relative, drug dealer or off the Internet; 26% had prescriptions for at least one doctor.

By Donna Leinwand Leger, USA TODAY