Prescription opioid abuse and diversion in an urban community: the results of an ultrarapid assessment

Pain Med. 2009 Apr;10(3):537-48. doi: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2009.00603.x.


Objective: Prescription-drug diversion is a topic about which comparatively little is known, and systematic information garnered from prescription-drug abusers and dealers on the specific mechanisms of diversion is extremely limited.

Design: A pilot ultrarapid assessment was carried out in Wilmington, Delaware, during December 2006 to better understand the scope and dynamics of prescription-drug abuse and diversion. This involved focus groups with prescription-drug abusers and key informant interviews with police, regulatory officials, prescription-drug dealers, and pill brokers.

Setting and patients: The research team recruited focus group participants from the two residential substance abuse treatment programs in Wilmington reporting the highest proportions of prescription drug abusing clients. A total of six focus groups were conducted with 32 patients in these two programs. Dealers were recruited from the same treatment facilities, and three in-depth interviews were completed. In-depth interviews were also conducted with two prescription pill brokers recruited through the authors' existing contacts in the drug abusing community. Six in-depth interviews were conducted with representatives from a number of Delaware agencies-the Attorney General's Office, the Department of Professional Regulation, the State Police; the Wilmington Police Department, and the Newark Police Department.

Measures: In-depth interview and focus group guides were developed for each of the target populations. The in-depth interviews with police and regulatory officials focused on the extent of prescription drug abuse and diversion in the community, the types of drugs most commonly diverted, and mechanisms being used to channel the drugs to the illicit market. The focus group areas of inquiry with prescription drug abusers included general perceptions of the prescription drug problem in Delaware, sources and mechanisms of access to prescription drugs, popularity and prices of prescription medications on the street, as well as the initiation and progression of prescription and illicit drug abuse.

Results: The primary sources of prescription drugs on the street were the elderly, patients with pain, and doctor shoppers, as well as pill brokers and dealers who work with all of the former. The popularity of prescription drugs in the street market was rooted in the abusers' perceptions of these drugs as 1) less stigmatizing; 2) less dangerous; and, 3) less subject to legal consequences than illicit drugs. For many, the abuse of prescription opioids also appeared to serve as a gateway to heroin use.

Conclusion: The diversion of prescription opioids might be reduced through physician education focusing on 1) recognizing that a patient is misusing and/or diverting prescribed medications; 2) considering a patient's risk for opioid misuse before initiating opioid therapy; and 3) understanding the variation in the abuse potential of different opioid medications currently on the market. Patient education also appears appropriate in the areas of safeguarding medications, disposal of unused medications, and understanding the consequences of manipulating physicians and selling their medications.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Analgesics, Opioid*
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Mass Screening / methods*
  • Prescription Drugs*
  • Substance-Related Disorders*
  • Urban Population*


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Prescription Drugs