The Scary Truth About Sharing Pills

Want a prescription painkiller, just for today? How about an anti-anxiety drug? Instead of bothering with a doctor, many women just borrow meds from their friends. Is it harmless or a really bad idea?
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The Secret Sharers

Amy Ross* is a 37-year-old public defender in Manhattan, fit and high energy, with a closetful of killer outfits and a group of girlfriends as devoted to their high-power jobs as she is to hers. But her crushing workload and the pressure of constant court appearances sometimes give her anxiety attacks -- pounding pulse, cold sweats, and a feeling that she's about to die. Her psychiatrist prescribes Xanax to help alleviate the panic.

Ross also takes the drug to relax at the end of a hard day. "It's fewer calories than a glass of wine," she says. Many of her friends use it for that purpose, too. Not all of them have a prescription, so Ross and her pals share their chill pills on a regular basis. "It's like that book The Joy Luck Club," she says, "where a group of friends put money in a pot each week and give it to whichever woman is in trouble."

Eileen Coleman,* 54, occupies a different universe from those chic New Yorkers and their Xanax club. She's a librarian in a Northern California suburb. Rather than courtroom showdowns, she and her friends grapple with the minor ailments of middle age, from backaches to insomnia. Yet they have one thing in common with Ross's crowd: They stockpile any leftover prescription drugs for friends in need.

"It started a few years ago when I threw my back out and was in a lot of pain," Coleman recalls. "A friend said, 'Hey, I have some muscle relaxants left from the last time I had a back problem. I'll give you one or two to tide you over until you get to the chiropractor.'" Since then she and her circle have also shared prescription painkillers, sleeping pills, and the occasional Valium -- whatever the situation demands.

Most people still obtain their prescription drugs the old-fashioned way -- by carrying a scribbled-on slip of paper from their doctor to the local pharmacy. But health care practitioners say that a growing number of patients are bypassing the professionals altogether by getting pills from friends and family members. "My colleagues and I see it all the time," says primary care physician Sharon Orrange, MD, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine. "People will say, 'I had a urinary-tract infection, so I took my friend's amoxicillin. I couldn't concentrate, so I took my friend's Adderall.'"

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