Prescription Medications and the Risk of Abuse

Prescription medicines are a class of drugs that legally require a physician’s prescription to obtain. These medications are used to treat a wide variety of illnesses, though have become the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States. This means that the prescription drugs in your home could be the target of theft. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the highest abuse rate of prescription substances is found in those ages 18 to 25 at 14.4%, with youth ages 12 to 17 reporting a rate of 4.9%, which means that the possibility of prescription drug theft increases with teenagers in the home. The best way to protect your family is to secure your medication and use home security features to monitor your home and what’s inside.

In this article

Which medications are the target of theft?

  • Opioids: Opioids are used to reduce the intensity of pain and are highly addictive. Even when used as prescribed by your doctor, long-term use of opioids can lead to addiction, which is why opioids are mainly used in short bursts after major events like surgery. Before prescribing, doctors should abide by the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain. 
  • CNS Depressants: Central nervous system depressants are a class of tranquilizers and sedatives that are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. 
  • Stimulants: Stimulants are used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, narcolepsy, and sometimes treatment-resistant depression. They increase alertness, attention, and energy, making them popular among high school and college students. 

Why would someone steal medication?

It’s estimated that approximately 18 million people have abused prescription medications at least once in the past year. Many teens are under the impression that because these medications are prescribed by a doctor, prescription drugs are safe to use outside of how they were originally intended. This may factor into why the number of overdoses and deaths related to opioids is higher than any other drug combined. The misinformation about the addictive nature of prescription drugs may lead to the belief that these drugs are less harmful than illicit drugs, though this is not the case. Even with such commanding statistics, doctors cannot just stop prescribing these medications to patients who truly need them, so handing them responsibly in your home is key.

Teenagers and prescription drugs

1 in 4 teenagers admits to misusing prescription drugs at some point, and report a number of motivations for doing so. While some just want to “fit it” with what they see in school or on social media, others take them to experiment and get high, and others use them to self medicate for things like pain, anxiety or insomnia. Already the victims of confusion and rapid maturity, young adults are the highest group of prescription drug users. Which is why it’s important to take preventative measures to stop it before it becomes an issue. Of the teens abusing these drugs, 66% of teens and young adults get them from family, friends, and acquaintances. That means that the people most often targeted are those with “high value” prescriptions in their home, like parents and grandparents.

Prevent Your Medication From Being Stolen

Safe storage 

In all likelihood, if you’ve been a victim of medication theft by a member of your family, you probably didn’t even know it happened. Thankfully, keeping your medication safe and protecting your family doesn’t have to be hard. There are locking pill bottles that are designed to hold your bottles, so the pills can stay in their original containers with an added layer of protection. There are also plenty of options for safes, lockboxes, and lock bags that are specially designed to secure your medication. If you think you may have been a victim of medication theft, take these steps in the future: 

  • Keep your prescription pills together in a safe and secure place.
  • Always keep medications in their original bottles.
  • Take an inventory of how many pills you have and update it as pills are taken. 
  • Never publicize, even verbally, that you have prescriptions.
  • Invest in locking pill bottles or safe storage for your medications. 

Security measures in the home

Still, there are additional things you can do to keep your medication and family safe. After you’ve updated your medication inventory and closed them away in a safe or medicine cabinet, you can use strategically-placed security cameras inside of your home to capture any theft on video. Alternatively, the old cell phones you have laying around your house can serve this purpose. Just install a home security app, mount the phone and you’re ready to go. 

Discrete medicine cabinet alarm systems that alert you each time your medicine cabinet door is opened are also available. The alarm is silent, so instead of alerting the thief, it sends notifications of the event with a timestamp and date of when it happened to the phone numbers and email addresses attached to our account. 

Doctors cannot just stop prescribing these medications to patients who truly need them, so handing them responsibly in your home is key.

If you don’t want to spring for a full medical cabinet security system, you can add door sensors to the door of your medicine cabinet. Two sensors form a circuit that triggers an alarm and alerts you if the sensors are separated, but be advised that some sensors do set off an alarm, and are thus a little less discreet.

Security measures outside the home

Securing your home doesn’t just happen on the inside. Equipping your home with outside hardware can deter thieves from ever entering your home. Video doorbells have motion sensors and powerful cameras that alert you to anyone approaching your home. But your video doorbells can’t see everything. Place additional outdoor security cameras on all entrances of your home for the highest safety measures. 

For extra reinforcement, you can DIY some added home security by installing door and window sensors, or you can call in the pros and install a home security with a professional monitoring company that will make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

Disposing of unneeded prescriptions

Year-round takeback centers

One of the most efficient ways to keep your prescriptions out of the hands of someone else is to simply get rid of the ones you don’t need. Your first choice for disposing of any leftover prescription medications should always be turning them into U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) drug take-back locations. Depending on where you live, these locations may be located in hospitals and clinics, retail pharmacies, and law enforcement agencies. Additionally, there may be drop-off boxes and mail-back programs in your community. 

Prescription drug takeback day

Twice a year the DEA holds a no-questions-asked drug take-back event with temporary locations all across the country. During the 18th National Take Back Day in 2019, there were 6,174 temporary sites set up that collected 882,919 pounds of unused prescription medication. These events are also a great way to learn about the potential for abuse when taking any of these prescription drugs. Bring your teen to ensure they understand the dangers of prescription medications and how to responsibly dispose of them. 

Safe disposal at home

Hanging on to old pills only makes it harder to keep track and increases the chances of prescription drug abuse among your immediate family. Remember, just because you hide them doesn’t mean teens don’t know about them. Disposing of excess pills in the correct way deters teens and prevents the accidental poisoning of children or pets. But getting rid of them is not as simple as tossing them in the trash. There are two recommended ways to dispose of leftover pills at home:

Flushing medicines

Some medicines, generally the ones that are most harmful to others, instruct you to immediately flush any excess down the toilet or sink. Opioids in both pill and patch form most commonly have these types of directions. Patches must be folded in half with the sticky sides touching before flushing. Some cities might have environmental ordinances against flushing medication, so if you are unsure if your medications are okay to be flushed, consult the label and any patient information given to you by your pharmacist, as well as your local government’s website. If all else fails, you can always check the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website to find their complete list of how to dispose of each type of medication.

Mixing them with household trash

For those medications that cannot be flushed, the U.S Food and Drug Administration instructs you to dispose of extra pills in the trash. But don’t just toss the bottle out, instead, follow these steps:

  • Take excess pills and mix them with an undesirable substance, like coffee grounds, cat litter, or dirt. This decreases the chances of children, teens, and thieves removing them from the trash. It’s important that you do not crush the pills or capsules. 
  • Once you have your undesirable mixture, place it in a container you can close like a sandwich bag or empty can. This prevents the pills from leaking or separating from the mixture. 
  • Now throw the contained mixture in your trash.
  • Always make sure to scratch off any personal information off the bottle and packing label before throwing them away. This step protects your privacy and should be done regardless of how you dispose of your medication.

How Can You Address Prescription Theft in Your Teen?

Establish an open dialogue

Many teens are misinformed or simply do not know the dangers of prescription drugs and the associated chance of addiction and accidental overdose. With the onset of newfound independence, it’s more than likely they are hearing about drugs at school, from friends, or on the internet, not all of which will be accurate. Regardless of whether you think your child would steal your prescription, talking to your child in a supportive way is the only way to make sure they are educated enough to make their own decisions. 

It sounds easy, but ask any parent: having these types of conversations with your teens is not simple. While it might be uncomfortable and may even cause conflict, it’s essential you have them. Here are a few things to keep in mind to make the conversation as productive as possible:

  • Make sure the environment you speak to them feels safe and open.
  • Try not to be judgmental or critical of them. 
  • Be supportive and express how proud you are that they are willing to talk to you about difficult topics.
  • Listen to your teen and allow them to ask questions. While you may want to interrupt and fix the situation, it’s important they are able to say what they feel. 
  • If you find that your teen won’t talk to you, seek help from another adult (relative, teacher, trained caring specialist, or counselor).

Signs to look out for

If you think your teen may be stealing or using prescription drugs, refer back to your home security system to review any footage you may have. Additionally, recount your pills to see if any are missing. Most importantly, pay close attention to any changes in your teen’s behavior.

  • Major changes in their behavior or appearance.
  • Trouble at school or a drop in their academic performance
  • Quick to conflict or lashing out (disregarding rules, trouble at school, ignoring curfew).
  • Isolations from family and friends. May also look like an abrupt change in social groups and friends. 
  • Avoiding eye contact and an increased demand for privacy.

My child is stealing prescription drugs: now what?

You’ve found that your child has been stealing your prescription pills. No matter how you found out, you have to address it. There are various at-home drug test options that are available to you to test if one or more illicit or prescription drugs are present. Once you’ve spoken to your teen and confirmed they are using drugs, it’s important to find out how long, how often, and why. 

Finding an alternative outlet for teens who have experimented with prescription pills is a great way to focus their energy and give them goals to work towards. Always maintain a seamless system of counting your pills, securing them in lockboxes, and monitoring security cameras. Keeping your home security system up and running is all the more important when you have a teen in your home. 

If you suspect your teen is experimenting with prescription medication, please visit any of these sites for help: