You probably don’t realize it, but if you give a friend or family member a narcotic painkiller, or you take one from someone else, you are, in fact, breaking the law. This seemingly innocent act is actually a felony. Specific laws vary state by state, but if you are caught with illegal prescription drugs (meaning any meds that aren’t prescribed for you), you can be imprisoned and/or fined.
“Most people want to be law-abiding citizens,” notes Donald Teater, MD, medical director of the National Safety Council (NSC), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting safe practices at work, on the roads and at home. “If they knew they were breaking the law, they probably wouldn’t take someone else’s medication or give someone medication. But if you share your medication with someone else, you are basically considered a dealer and that can be punishable by up to seven years in prison.” (The Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA, doesn’t track arrests, prosecutions or convictions for unlawfully sharing prescription narcotic medication and the Department of Justice didn’t respond to calls and emails.)
Sharing Is Not Caring
People do share, though — in droves: According a 2009-2010 survey on drug use and health done by the White House’s Office of National Drug Policy, over 55% of Americans who used pain relievers non-medically got the medication from a friend or family for free. Another 11% bought them from a friend or relative and 5% got them from someone they know without asking. Add those numbers up and you can see that 71% of people surveyed who used a pain med not to treat pain got it without having their own prescription.
Even if you do break the law, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be prosecuted, says Dr. Teater. “The laws are rarely enforced, because there is really no way for law enforcement to know what is going on unless people are selling the medication. And that is a whole different story.” He does note, however, that if you give someone an opioid medication like oxycodone or hydrocodone and they overdose, “you may be in trouble at that point.”
It’s 10 P.M. Do You Know Where Your Pills Are?
In a perfect world, doctors would warn their patients of the legal ramifications of sharing these painkillers, which have higher rates of dependence, addiction and overdose than many physicians fully understand. “But nowadays doctors aren’t going to take the extra time to talk about the legal aspects,” says Teater. “Twenty years ago there wouldn’t be so many prescriptions in medicine cabinets because pain medications just weren’t prescribed as much. Prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) – state-run programs that track scheduled [controlled substance] drugs – might [now] pick up someone who’s filling too many prescriptions for the same drug.” Adds Teater: “[PDMPs] might identify a person who is doctor-shopping and might be at risk for addiction, or someone who is selling drugs, but [they don’t track] casual sharing.” The problem is, even casual sharing can set the stage for dependence and addiction in someone who is susceptible.
The more prescriptions there are for narcotic pain medication, the more supply there is, greatly increasing the odds for abuse. In an effort to curb the supply, in August 2014 the Drug Enforcement Administration reclassified hydrocodone combination products (meaning medications in which the opioid hydrocodone is combined with other drugs that also relieve pain or relieve cough) as Schedule II drugs — the category reserved for medical substances with the highest potential for harm. This new classification means refills are prohibited and it establishes other restrictions on the prescribing and use of these drugs.
How to Keep Your Pain Meds Out of the Wrong Hands
Actions like these make the drugs harder to get, but once you have a narcotic painkiller — even if you’re not giving anyone your medications willingly — there are still many ways that people in your circle or even strangers can get their hands on them. Here’s how to protect your medication and yourself:
- Keep track of your prescription from the time you pick it up at the pharmacy.
- Once you’re home, lock them up. “It doesn’t have to be anything fancy,” says Teater. “And it’s especially important to lock them up if you use them intermittently.”
- When you travel, take only the amount of medication you need and leave the rest at home, suggests the American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA).
When You Don’t Need Your Medication Anymore
Getting rid of narcotic painkillers isn’t as easy as throwing them in the garbage. First of all, you don’t want even the prescription bottle to land just anywhere. “Empty medication bottles and pharmacy bags both have printed labels that could be used to forge an order for refills,” cautions the ACPA’s website, which advises compacting, burning, shredding or bagging up the bag and bottle to make sure they cannot be stolen.
As for leftover pills, there are several tactics: According to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), to prevent accidental ingestion of these potentially dangerous medicines by children or pets it’s recommended that they be disposed of through a medication take-back program or by giving them to a DEA-authorized collector. If these options aren’t available near you, the medications should be flushed down the sink or toilet as soon as they’re no longer needed. For questions about disposing medicine, contact the FDA at 888-INFO-FDA (1-888-463-6332).
Finally, in 2014 the DEA authorized pharmacies to start accepting unused prescription drugs from consumers. The new regulation covers drugs designated as controlled substances, which includes opioid painkillers like OxyContin, stimulants like Adderall and anti-anxiety drugs like Ativan. For more on the program, read “The DEA Makes Every Day ‘Drug Take-Back Day’.”