Researchers from Drexel University’s School of Public Health conducted a study of young drug users and found that many heroin addicts began by abusing prescription pain medications in their teens.
The study, which gathered interviews from 50 drug users between the ages of 18 and 25, was the second phase of a planned larger-scale project. This particular phase of the study, which focused on young injection users who are most at risk for misuse of prescription drugs, was published in the International Journal of Drug Policy in May 2011.
Stephen Lankenau, an associate professor for the School of Public Health, initiated the study in 2008 after noticing that there was an increasing misuse of prescription drugs among young adults but not much qualitative research on the subject.
Lankenau found that previously, the typical trajectory was that heroin users who also abused pain medications didn’t begin their prescription drug abuse until later on in their drug habit. However, the results of his new study gave a different story.
“What we found in this study is that virtually all participants misused pain medication first and then later got into using heroin,” Lankenau said. “So pain medication is becoming increasingly common among all sectors of society, but in this particular group it was kind of a pathway into heroin and injection drug use.”
According to the report, nearly three-quarters of the subjects had been prescribed a pain medication on average between the ages of 14 and 15 for legitimate reasons, such as dental procedures or sports injuries. Two-fifths of the participants reported their own prescription as the source of first misuse.
Lankenau pointed out, though, that not all people who abuse pain medication would progress to use heroin.
“About 20 percent of young adults have misused pain medication in their lifetime whereas only 1 percent have injected drugs,” Lankenau said. “This study only focuses on that 1 percent.”
Karol Silva, a research assistant for the study, joined Lankenau a year ago to help with reading the transcript of the interviews and forming themes within the research.
“The issue is still prevalent,” Silva said. “You hear more and more in news about people who are prescribed painkillers, for instance, after having a surgery or any sort of type of medical intervention. And because painkillers are so strong, people end up needing more and more. And if they have a network of drug-using friends, heroin at times is maybe easier to come by.”
Lankenau and his team finished the preliminary data collection for the third part of the study this past spring. They have recruited 600 young adults from New York and Los Angeles to participate in a more descriptive and quantitative look at the correlation between heroin and prescription drug abuse in the final phase of the study.