ARCHIVED January 1, 2006. This document may contain dated information.
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National Drug Intelligence Center Product No. 2003-L0559-013
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Printable brochure (702 KB pdf)
Questions and Answers
National Drug Intelligence Center
a component of the
U.S. Department of Justice.
The prescription drugs that are commonly abused in the United States fall into several broad categories: opioids/narcotics/pain relievers, depressants, and stimulants. Individuals abuse these drugs because they are an easily accessible and inexpensive means of altering a user's mental and physical state; the effects vary depending upon the drugs they abuse.
Common Brand Names
Dilaudid, Lorcet, Lortab,
Percodan, Tylox, Vicodin
(benzodiazepines, tranquilizers, barbiturates, sedatives)
Librium, Valium, Xanax Stimulants
Adderall, Concerta, Ritalin
How are prescription drugs abused?
Prescription drugs are abused in a variety of ways. Many of the prescription drugs that are commonly abused are available as tablets. Typically abusers either consume the tablets orally or crush them into a powder, which they then snort. In some instances, abusers dissolve crushed tablets in water and then inject the solution.
Who abuses prescription drugs?
Individuals of all ages abuse prescription drugs--data reported in the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse indicate that an estimated 36 million U.S. residents aged 12 and older abused prescription drugs at least once in their lifetime. The survey also revealed that millions of teenagers and young adults abuse prescription drugs--2.7 million individuals aged 12 to 17 and 6.9 million individuals aged 18 to 25 abused prescription drugs at least once.
Prescription drug abuse among high school students is a particular concern. According to the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future Survey, more than 10 percent of high school seniors in the United States abused narcotics (other than heroin) at least once in their lifetime. Nearly 17 percent abused amphetamines (a type of stimulant), 10 percent abused barbiturates, and 11 percent abused tranquilizers at least once.
What are the risks?
The risks associated with prescription drug abuse vary depending upon the drugs that are abused. Abuse of opioids/narcotics/pain relievers can result in life-threatening respiratory depression (reduced breathing). Individuals who abuse depressants, including benzodiazepines, tranquilizers, barbiturates, and sedatives, place themselves at risk of seizures, respiratory depression, and decreased heart rate. Stimulant abuse can cause high body temperature, irregular heart rate, cardiovascular system failure, and fatal seizures. It can also result in hostility or feelings of paranoia. Individuals who abuse prescription drugs by injecting them expose themselves to additional risks, including contracting HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), hepatitis B and C, and other blood-borne viruses.
How are they obtained?
Prescription drugs are obtained in various ways. In some cases, unscrupulous pharmacists or other medical professionals either steal the drugs or sell fraudulent prescriptions. In a process known as doctor shopping, abusers visit several doctors to obtain multiple prescriptions. Individuals also call pharmacies with fraudulent prescription refills, or they alter prescriptions. Prescription drugs occasionally are stolen from pharmacies.
Young people typically obtain prescription drugs from peers, friends, or family members. Some individuals who have legitimate prescriptions sell or give away their drugs. Young people also acquire prescription drugs by stealing them from relatives and other individuals with legitimate prescriptions or from school medicine dispensaries.
What are they called?
Street Terms for Commonly
Abused Prescription Drugs
Opioids/Narcotics/Pain Relievers OxyContin Percocet Vicodin Hillbilly heroin
Percs Happy pills
Depressants Xanax Benzodiazepines Barbiturates Totem poles Candy
Is abusing prescription drugs illegal?
Yes, it is illegal to use prescription drugs without a valid prescription or to distribute them. The penalties associated with the abuse or illegal distribution of prescription drugs vary depending upon the drug type.
Other products of interest:
Check out Fast Facts on:
GHB and analogs
Teens and drugs
Also available from NDIC:
Huffing--The Abuse of Inhalants
Prescription Drug Abuse and Youth
Drugs, Youth, and the Internet
For more information on illicit drugs check out our web site at: www.usdoj.gov/ndic. Call 814-532-4541 to request NDIC products.
National Drug Intelligence Center
319 Washington Street, 5th Floor
Johnstown , PA 15901-1622
NDIC Washington Liaison Office
8201 Greensboro Drive, Suite 1001
McLean , VA 22102-3840
NDIC publications are available on the following web sites:
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