Home Is Where the High Is

“You don’t have to go to the drug dealer, or even leave the house. You can just go upstairs to Mom’s medicine cabinet and boom! You’re locked and loaded …People feel like, ‘Wow, how bad could it be? It came from our doctor. And I’m not doing street drugs. I’m doing what Mom has in her medicine cabinet.” – Peter S., a 26-year-old recovering addict1

Chances are you have prescription drugs at home. And if you have teens or young adults in your home, you could unknowingly be their drug dealer. The Institute for Good Medicine at the Pennsylvania Medical Society wants to alert Pennsylvanians to the troubling trend of prescription drug abuse, particularly by teens. According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America2:

  • Twelve to 17 year olds abuse prescription drugs more than they abuse ecstasy, crack/cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine combined.
  • Sixty percent of teens who have abused prescription painkillers did so before age 15.
  • There are as many new abusers age 12 to 17 of prescription drugs as there are of marijuana.

These days, ads touting the benefits of prescription drugs are everywhere, and they’re more widely used than ever before. There’s an unfortunate familiarity and comfort level tied to that exposure.

Teens, grades 7-123:

  • Two in five teens (40 percent or 9.4 million) believe that prescription medicines are much safer to use than illegal drugs.
  • Nearly one-third of teens (31 percent or 7.3 million) believe there’s nothing wrong with using medicines without a prescription once in a while.
  • Nearly three out of 10 teens (29 percent or 6.8 million) believe prescription pain relievers are not addictive.
  • More than half of teens (55 percent or 13 million) think that using cough medicine to get high is not risky.

“Prescription drugs are not safe when taken by someone else,” adds Williamsport internist Daniel Glunk, MD, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society.

“When used as prescribed, medications like painkillers, depressants, and stimulants are certainly beneficial, but, in the wrong hands, they can be deadly. It’s critical that parents talk to their teens about the dangers, watch prescriptions carefully and lock them up if possible. If there’s a concern about prescription drug abuse, please talk with your doctor,” he adds.

Pennsylvania Medical Society member Adam Gordon, MD, an internal medicine physician and addiction medicine specialist in Pittsburgh, notes, “Physicians prescribe drugs to treat a specific condition, in a specific person, with a specific medical history and make up. When used by someone else, prescription drugs can cause dramatic increases in blood pressure and heart rate, organ damage, addiction, difficulty breathing, seizures, and even death.”

Dr. Gordon considers pain medications such as Vicodin, morphine, and OxyContin particularly dangerous. “Many patients are on these medications long term and accumulate a supply in their medicine cabinets. If the cabinet or bathroom door is unlocked, anyone in your home can pilfer a few tablets that will go unnoticed by the patient.”

He adds that pain medications can be sold on the street for more than illegal substances, like heroin. For example, a single 40 milligram OxyContin tablet can sell for $40, while a “hit” of heroin costs about $10. “It’s not uncommon to hear about patients or family members selling the pills to ‘make a buck,’ especially in these hard economic times.”

Think your teen might not be tempted by what’s in your medicine cabinet? Today, “fishbowl parties” have replaced “spin the bottle.” Teenagers take a few pills (and it doesn’t matter which medication) from their parent’s or relative’s medicine cabinet, come together, dump all the pills in a large bowl and take turns trying various tablets—and then watch the effects on each other.

“Combine these drugs with alcohol, which is often the case, and you have a potentially deadly situation,” adds Dr. Gordon.

He also cautions patients about sharing pain medications, because “it helped me, here take couple.” This is illegal, dangerous, and can lead to further abuse of prescription drugs. “Medication prescribed to one patient is that patient’s responsibility. Don’t share.”

The Institute for Good Medicine at the Pennsylvania Medical Society advises all patients to be extremely careful with their medications.

Parents are encouraged to:

  • Talk with their kids about the dangers of taking prescription drugs without a doctor’s approval and supervision.
  • Make sure they understand that getting high with prescription drugs is not safe. If parents find that conversation difficult, visit these websites for discussion guides that can help.
  • Watch medications in the house. Keep track of the pill count, monitor medicine levels, and pay attention to how often a refill is needed. If a teen has been prescribed a medication, make sure a parent or guardian controls their medication, and monitors dosages and refills.
  • And, if medications are too accessible in a home, lock them up. Finally, make sure a good example is being set by not taking a leftover pain pill for that ache in your shoulder. And please don’t share medications, “because it’ll help.”

Take prescription drugs seriously and chances are your teens will too.

Prescription Drugs Frequently Abused by Young People4

Drug Type 

Common Brand Names

Prescribed For

Physiological Effects

Adverse Effects

Opioids/pain relievers Dilaudid, Lorcet, Lortab, OxyContin, Percocet, Percodan, Tylox, Vicodin Pain, cough, diarrhea Affects brain region that mediates pleasure resulting in euphoria Life-threatening respiratory depression
Depressants (benzodiazepines, tranquilizers, barbiturates, sedatives) Valium, Xanax Anxiety, sleep disorders Slows down brain activity resulting in a drowsy or calming effect Seizures, respiratory depression, decreased heart rate
Stimulants Adderall, Concerta, Ritalin Narcolepsy, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, obesity Enhances brain activity resulting in an increase in alertness, attention, and energy High body temperature, irregular heart rate, cardiovascular system failure, fatal seizures, hostility or feelings of paranoia


  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse
  2. Partnership for a Drug-Free America, Not in My House
  3. Partnership for a Drug-Free America, 2005 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS) Teen Survey
  4. Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse, Prescription Drugs Frequently Abused by Young People