Misusing prescription drugs

Taking some medicine that the doctor didn't order? If prescription drugs are used recreationally, their effects can be unpredictable, so it's worth knowing the facts before you start abusing that prescription.

prescription drugs

Taking these are unlikely to be doctor's orders.

What are pharmaceuticals?

Pharmaceuticals are manufactured drugs obtainable by prescription or over-the-counter. Most pharmaceuticals do not have such desirable side effects that they are taken for anything other than their original purpose. It’s the ones that produce sought-after effects that are open to abuse – and subsequently can become highly addictive. Sometimes this might be a feeling of being high, other times they could counteract unpleasant symptoms (such as withdrawal from other drugs), or to enable you to do something that wouldn’t be possible otherwise (stay awake, for instance),

These drugs normally include sleeping tablets, tranquillisers, anabolic steroids, painkillers, impotence treatments and treatments for mental disorders, but people can be very resourceful at finding different uses for the many other drugs on the market.


There have been reports about the misuse of attention-deficit disorder drug Ritalin (methylphenidate). Dubbed ‘kiddie coke’ because the effects of Ritalin on people who don’t need it can be likened to cocaine or amphetamine, it has been known in some schools to be peddled for 50p to £1 per tablet by pupils who get it on prescription.

This medicine can cause sleeplessness, alertness, anxiety and paranoia. There are often reports about an increase in the popularity of the drug amongst students taking exams, to keep them awake and fuel ‘all night cramming sessions’.

With any drug that keeps you ‘up’ there is always a down, and feeling the need to avoid the crash is what makes Ritalin psychologically addictive.


In the 60s, Valium got a name for itself as ‘mother’s little helper’, being widely prescribed to housewives who then became hooked on it. It belongs to the drug group benzodiazepine, and ‘benzos’ are often used by people who want to comedown from other drugs such as ecstasy or speed (amphetamine). Temazepam (‘Jellies’) is a stronger benzodiazepine frequently obtained by heroin users to ease withdrawal.

Tranquillisers have a depressant effect, so can induce calmness, relaxation, promote sleep and soothe emotional pain. However, they can be ‘numbing’ and are dangerous when taken with alcohol since the combined depressant effects can easily cause fatal overdose.

Another danger of mixing benzodiazepines with booze is that they can cause severe reduction of inhibitions, along with memory loss or blackouts. Although some people seek this level of intoxication, they are much more likely to engage in – and forget about – risk-taking behaviour, such as committing violence or having unsafe sex when taking this combination of drugs.

Barbiturates are a more worrying group of drugs to dabble with – it’s easy to take a lethal overdose even without mixing with drink. Barbiturates are hypnosedatives (sleeping tablets with a hypnotic effect) and described by Drugscope as ‘one of the most dangerous drugs misused in Britain’. They are prescribed less nowadays because the fatal dose is so close to the normal dose and sudden withdrawal can cause death.

Painkillers & other ‘pharms’

There are many types of painkillers or analgesics on the market. Some, such as dihydrocodeine (DF118s) are commonly used by people who are dependent on heroin, as they help to ease a cold turkey (withdrawal) when the next fix isn’t imminent.

Since the mid-1970s there have been a number of deaths in the US linked to the strong morphine-like opioid painkiller fentanyl (Durogesic). It produces feelings of euphoria and is reportedly “50 times stronger than heroin and 80 times more powerful than morphine”. The drug is adminstered safely in patches to patients suffering chronic pain, but illicit users have been opening the patches and sucking the drug out, or even injecting to get more intense effects.

Strong painkillers such as dihydrocodeine and fentanyl are very addictive. People who use them medically often have to withdraw very slowly when treatment stops as side-effects can be unpredicatable and dangerous.

Anabolic steroids are rarely used in medicine anymore because of the risk of serious unwanted complications, but they are frequently misused. They are synthetically produced chemicals that mimic the effects of natural hormones, especially the male sex hormones or androgens.

Steroids are frequently abused by those involved in sports since they build muscle and strength. They can cause excessive aggression due to the effects on the hormones, but are also linked with cardiovascular disease as well as reduced fertility.

Is misusing prescription drugs illegal?

It is difficult to say how prevalent pharmaceutical misuse is amongst young people since they rarely enter drug services and these drugs tend not to be recorded in the same ways as the others.

If you are using pharms, it’s worth trying to gain some understanding of the rather complicated laws surrounding them. Medicines and drugs are controlled under either the Medicines Act 1968 or the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, or both. Some pharmaceuticals, such as Viagra and Ketamine, are restricted only under the former, whereas others like benzodiazepines and anabolic steroids are covered by both the Acts (these drugs become Class C Contolled Drugs when possessed illegally without a prescription, others like Ritalin and barbiturates become Class B).

To get more information about the legal status of pharmaceutical drugs, access a drugs information service such as Release.

Next Steps

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By Andrea Wren

Updated on 29-Sep-2015

Photo of medicine by Shutterstock