Prescription opioids are addictive. Many teens start by abusing pills found in the home.

Addiction to and abuse of drugs has many causes but apparently, proximity is one of them. Addiction starts in the home. I don’t mean just that we first use drugs in our own house (though many do) or that addiction sometimes seems to run in families (it is partly a genetic disposition). I mean we often start using drugs we find in our own house.

According to a review of three studies in Forbes, almost one-third of adolescents who take prescription drugs for illegal recreational reasons got the pills from the medicine cabinet of family or friends. That is, we begin by using, misusing, abusing the drugs we find around us. Sometimes it’s alcohol, sometimes it’s the leftover opioid painkillers a member of the family was prescribed but no longer needs.

Painkillers aren’t like antibiotics. When you have prescribed an antibiotic, you are usually told to take the pills until they are gone even if you feel better before. With painkillers, usually, you are told to take them only as needed, not even every day, because physicians are aware of their addictive nature.

Most people don’t want to take super-strong painkillers any longer than they have to because they can leave you feeling wonky, unsteady, and not fit to operate heavy machinery such as a car.

At the same time, we are loath to throw out or otherwise get rid of leftover painkillers because we might need something stronger than aspirin or Tylenol in the future. Besides, we already paid for them, or at least the co-pay.

You might think that a few, leftover pills aren’t enough to make someone an addict or overdose, but every little bit helps, or rather hurts. Or, as poet Stanislaw Jerzy Lec wrote, “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible”.

One of the Forbes studies found that having a family member with a prior prescription for opioids increased the odds of overdosing almost three times, not just for adolescents but for all family members.

So, what is the solution to preventing substance use disorder? Or do we have to accept it will happen and just treat it after the fact?

Controlling access is not enough or effective. We can’t even stop fentanyl, a highly dangerous opioid which mainly is smuggled in from China. Besides, if 30 percent of adolescents get their pills from leftover legal prescriptions, that means 70 percent get them elsewhere. 

The authors of the latter study suggest three remedies:

  1. Wider availability of opioid antagonists such as Narcan.
  2. Keeping prescriptions under lock and key.
  3. Education.

Addiction is a disease spread in part by misinformation and ignorance. Misinformation comes from the anti-addiction forces (Just Say No! This Is Your Brain on Drugs!) as well as the junkies and the pushers.

A lie in a good cause may be just as damaging as a lie for a bad cause. If you try to scare someone into being good, when they learn you were exaggerating wildly, they may not believe anything you say on the matter again. Remember Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”? “A liar will not be believed even when he speaks the truth.”

Words matter. Trust lost may be gone forever. So here are my suggestions:

  1. We need honest education about the harms of illicit drug use. The facts are scary enough; we don’t need to embellish them.
  2. We must learn from our mistakes in prosecuting the War on Drugs. More education and treatment, less prosecution.
  3. We must properly dispose of our leftover painkillers.