Most patients hospitalized for opioid detoxification don’t fit the „hooked on street drugs“ stereotype, according to a recent small study from the University of Buffalo. About 40 percent of the 75 study patients became addicted to opioids legitimately prescribed for pain. Another 32 percent initially obtained prescription opioids from the family medicine cabinet, driven by pain or curiosity, or from a friend — often at „pill parties.“ Only about 27 percent—20 patients—said they first became hooked on street drugs.

Almost all—92 percent—eventually bought street drugs, primarily heroin, finding them more effective and less expensive than prescription drugs. They continued using in order to „feel normal“ or „feel like a better person,“ or because the drugs „helped to take away my emotional pain and stress.“

Users said prescription drugs are available in high schools, „at the prom,“ and are used by athletes „to make it through the game,“ and to get high during weekends and off-seasons.

Patients in the study had an average age of 32 years. About 65 percent were men, 75 percent were white, and 75 percent had a high school diploma or equivalent. Those who became addicted from taking drugs legally prescribed for pain were more likely to be older and female, have a college degree, and take the drugs orally.

When asked if any doctor had ever questioned them about a substance use problem before writing a prescription, 74 percent of the 53 participants who answered the question said no.

Recently published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, the study will be used to educate physicians about screening, treating, and referring patients before addiction becomes life-threatening.


University of Buffalo, August 20, 2010.