The Scary Truth About Sharing Pills

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Dangerous Habits

When you talk to drug sharers that sense of self-empowerment comes through clearly -- as does an impatience with the bureaucracy that surrounds modern medical care. "There are so many gatekeepers," says Coleman, the California librarian. "If you need to see a specialist, you have to get approvals from your primary physician and the insurance company. It can take forever." Her group is scrupulous about proper dosage and drug interactions, she adds. They keep an eye out for side effects and consult the latest copy of Physicians' Desk Reference when they have questions. For these women, sharing is a matter not only of convenience but also of philosophy, Coleman says. "Our generation has the sense that we're all responsible for our own health and that doctors don't know everything. We know there are risks, but we make our decisions based on the available information."

Familiarity can make people more cavalier about sharing as well, experts say. For example, women who were treated for ADHD as children have a more casual attitude toward the use of stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall. "The longer you've taken something, the more comfortable you feel with it and the more likely you are to lend it to friends," says Barnett.

Fiona Kramer,* 25, was diagnosed with mild ADHD in middle school and took Adderall two or three times a week to help her focus. In college she let her prescription lapse. (She sold the remaining pills to classmates -- a common practice among college students, many of whom use ADHD drugs as study aids.) But when she got her first job, at a San Francisco PR firm, her symptoms returned. "It's a very intense agency, and it was taking me hours longer to do things than it took the next person," she says. Kramer went to a psychiatrist, who put her back on Adderall.

She takes the drug only when she feels the need. So when her office friend Kaylie complained that she, too, was feeling overwhelmed -- and mentioned that she also had been diagnosed with ADHD as a child -- Kramer offered to share her leftovers. "It doesn't feel like a big deal," she says. "She only asks for a pill or two when she's got a big assignment coming up. And we've both become much more productive."

Pearl Gliatto,* 44, of Providence, Rhode Island, used to share her ADHD drugs freely. She also borrowed some Ativan (a tranquilizer) from a friend to calm her while she quit smoking. Another friend once gave her a Valium to help her cope with a family member's sudden death, though in retrospect, she thinks the dose may have been dangerously high for her small frame. "It knocked me out completely," Gliatto says. "I took it that afternoon and next thing I knew it was morning." All of that happened before she went to nursing school. She was shocked to learn that sedatives can cause psychotic reactions in some people and that certain antibiotics can negate the effect of blood thinners. At the hospital where she works, Gliatto recently treated a woman who permanently damaged her heart by taking a friend's prescription diet pills. "Now I don't feel comfortable lending anything," she says. "I know all the bad things that can happen."

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