Study: One Third of Young Adults Misuse Psychoactive Prescription Drugs


Of the types of drugs analyzed, tranquilizers were the most often misused, followed by stimulants, opioids, and sedatives.

A new study of more than 110,000 young adults in the United States found that in addition to misusing psychoactive prescription drugs, use of prescribed psychoactive drugs increased with age.

The analytical sample included 110,556 youth and young adults between the ages of 12 and 25 years old. The study, published in Family Medicine and Community Health, defined psychoactive prescription medical misuse as a report by the respondent that they had used psychoactive prescription medications in the past year in any way that was not directed or prescribed. Medical use was defined as use within the past year without a report of misuse.

Among youth aged 12 to 17 years, 25% reported using any of the psychoactive prescription medications that were assessed and 5.7% reported use in the past year of at least 2 psychoactive prescription medications. Among youth who have used any psychoactive prescription medications, 20.9% reported misuse and 3.4% were classified as having substance use disorder.

Specifically, past-year use of each class of psychoactive prescription medications included opioids (19%), stimulants (7.2%), tranquillizers (4.3%), and sedatives (2.2%). Among users of each type of medication, the estimated percentage having substance use disorder was 2.6% for opioids, 3% for stimulants, 7% for tranquilizers, and 3.6% for sedatives.

Among adults between 18 and 25 years of age, the investigators found that compared to individuals who never used non-prescription substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana, opioid misuse increased with more recent use of non-prescription substances and a higher number of substances used. The investigators noted similar patterns for stimulants, tranquilizers, and sedatives.

The investigators noted that of the respondents who confessed to misusing psychoactive prescription drugs, 87% admitted to misusing another substance, such as alcohol, cigarettes, cigars, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, inhalants, or hallucinogens. Furthermore, they noted that use and misuse of prescribed psychoactive drugs increased with age. Although 1 in 4 teens reported taking one of these drugs over the past year and approximately 6% reported taking at least 2 such drugs, use increased to 41% and 13.5%, respectively, in adults 18 to 25 years of age.

Although the investigators noted that the study is observational and cannot establish cause, they emphasized that reforms to prescription substance misuse are necessary in order to promote health among youth and young adults.


Agaku I, Odani S, Nelson J. Medical use and misuse of psychoactive prescription medications among US youth and young adults. Family Medicine and Community Health 2021;9e000374. Doi:10.1136/fmch-2020-000374.

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