What is the penalty for sharing prescriptions?

If we think about portrayals of addiction in the media, we will often think of the heavy use of alcohol or illicit drugs. However, this only shows one side of the addiction experience. The lack of discussion around prescription drug addiction means that fewer people are aware of its dangers.

A common behaviour among individuals abusing prescription drugs is the sharing of prescriptions. Whilst this may appear harmless on the surface, it comes with a range of quite serious physical, psychological, and even social dangers.

What is sharing prescriptions?

If a friend was suffering from a headache, we might offer them some painkillers. This is quite common, even an everyday occurrence. However, sharing medication with friends can get a little murky. If a friend had a headache and we gave them some over-the-counter painkillers, such as ibuprofen or paracetamol, this would be legal. But if we offered them prescription medication—such as tramadol, naproxen or any other prescribed analgesics—we would technically be classed as ‘distributing’ drugs.

This is because certain medications are controlled substances, and should only be given out by a ‘prescribing clinician,’ such as a doctor or pharmacist. This is the case even if the person you are sharing the medication with has the same prescription as you. Sharing prescriptions is defined by the British Journal of General Practice as ‘the lending or borrowing of prescription medications where the recipient is someone other than the person for whom the prescription is intended.’

A large study found that many individuals share prescriptions when:

  • they are avoiding the cost of obtaining prescription medication
  • they do not wish to see a doctor
  • they did not feel they had appropriate access to a doctor
  • they ran out of medication
  • they needed emergency treatment

The most common types of prescriptions being shared were

  • painkillers
  • antibiotics
  • allergy medications
  • antidepressants
  • anti anxiety medications
  • treatments for skin issues
  • contraceptives
  • sleeping medications
  • asthma medications
  • blood pressure medications

The legal side

If you are found to be ‘distributing’ or ‘dealing’ prescription medications in any manner, you can be prosecuted under UK law. Doing so could be considered ‘possession of controlled drugs with intent to supply.’ Prescription medications are controlled and should only be dispensed by trained professionals with the appropriate knowledge. This can lead to fines, a prison sentence, or, in some circumstances, both.

The social consequences

Sharing prescriptions can occur when someone could benefit from help for prescription drug addiction. Prescription drug addiction can lead to a range of drug-seeking behaviours, including the attempt to borrow or share prescriptions with those around them. This may seem helpful at first, as it can feel as though you are helping a loved one manage difficult symptoms. However, sharing prescriptions can lead to a range of risks for the user, including:

  • deepening of prescription drug addiction side effects
  • development of polydrug addiction
  • normalisation of dangerous drug-use
  • normalisation of non-legal behaviours
  • unpredictable physical health effects

Taking multiple medications at once can lead to higher risk of toxicity – and therefore, higher risk of overdose. This is because drugs can interact with each other in different ways and lead to health emergencies.

In some instances, individuals may feel they have no choice but to pressure prescribing clinicians to access substances. However, unregulated prescription of medications from prescribing clinicians can lead to the removal of prescribing licences, legal action, and even being barred from the medical profession under prescribing law. Sharing or otherwise dispensing medications in unsafe ways then not only threatens health, but also threatens professional integrity.

Ethical issues

There is a range of ethical issues surrounding the sharing of prescriptions. The main difficulty is not knowing what to do if a loved one asks you for their medication. Is it ethical to decline when they claim that the medicine would help them in the short term? In this circumstance, it is worth thinking of the longer-term consequences of sharing prescriptions in an unregulated manner. Whilst it may be difficult to stay no, it is important to remember that a short-term alleviation does not equal long-term comfort.

This can be especially difficult when we know that, for socio-economic reasons, a loved one cannot or does not have access to a primary healthcare provider due to the cost of prescriptions. However, this can be discussed with appropriate clinicians. Support is available to reduce or eliminate the cost of prescriptions without the need for medication sharing.

Sharing prescriptions: Reducing risk

If you feel you have no choice but to share prescriptions, then there are some ways you can manage risk:

  • reading the information pamphlet on medications
  • researching contraindications
  • asking medical advice
  • only sharing prescriptions with people you know
  • not using prescription medications at the same time as alcohol
  • not using more than one medication at once
  • not using more of the medication than is indicated on the packet

If you feel that your use of medications is spiralling out of control, then you may be in need of prescription drug addiction treatment. With tailored packages of detoxification and various therapies (as well as confidential advice all the way from pre-admission support to free aftercare), Primrose Lodge can offer you the chance to begin your prescription drug addiction recovery.

(Click here to see works cited)

  • https://bjgp.org/content/74/740/e183
  • https://www.cps.gov.uk/crime-info/drug-offences
  • https://www.cdc.gov/stopoverdose/polysubstance-use/index.html
  • https://www.cdc.gov/stopoverdose/polysubstance-use/index.html
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