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What Is Drug Diversion?

April 1, 2022 DEA Defense Lawyers

Deaths of despair are on the rise in the United States, and drug overdoses account for a significant portion of the devastation. While illegal substances like heroin receive most of the media attention, many overdoses are caused by prescription drugs that were legally produced but illegally consumed. These prescription drugs are also common drivers of addiction, and many people turn to cheaper, more dangerous alternatives once they lose access to their initial drug of choice.

A major problem fueling this crisis is the flow of legally produced drugs into the wrong hands. Prescribed medications are only meant to be consumed by the individual whose name is on the prescription. Unfortunately, far too many addicts are able to obtain the drugs that maintain their addiction. When prescription drugs don’t reach their intended targets but instead end up with abusers, they increase pain, on a societal and individual level, rather than improving well-being.

This unfortunate flow of substances into the wrong hands is called drug diversion, and the government is desperately seeking to stop it. A slew of strategies, from raising awareness among pharmacists to changing the formulas of the drugs themselves, is meant to keep medications where they belong. If these efforts ultimately prove successful, society will have won a major battle in the fight against addiction.

Drug Diversion Defined

The term “drug diversion” refers to the illegal movement of medications from legal sources to illicit, unregulated endpoints. If, for example, a legally produced jar of prescription painkillers is given or sold to a person without a prescription, the case would constitute drug diversion. While this example represents the most common type of diversion, the practice can occur at any step of a medication’s journey.

How Drug Diversion Occurs

There are many illegal activities that fall under the category of drug diversion. What they all share is the end result: regulated substances reaching an illegal destination. Some drug diversion takes place between friends or relatives with an individual who has received a prescription medication simply giving it to someone else. Someone who has legally received prescribed medications can also sell the drugs on the illicit market.

Other instances of drug diversion take place at the pharmacy level. People sometimes forge prescriptions to get the drugs they crave, and a small minority will even rob pharmacies by force. Illegal pharmacies operating online will also provide drugs for people with fraudulent or illegitimate prescriptions.

Doctors can also be the source of drug diversion, especially when they prescribe medications to people who plan to abuse them. Some abusers engage in a practice called “doctor shopping,” visiting one physician after another until they find one who will prescribe them the drugs they’re after. While most doctors make a serious effort to keep drugs away from potential abusers, some bad actors write needless prescriptions for financial gain.

Preventing Drug Diversion

Preventing drug diversion requires continued effort at multiple levels, from the physicians who prescribe medications to the consumers who receive them. Doctors should adhere to strict guidelines when prescribing drugs, always looking for signs of addiction in the patient. Such signs include a desire to obtain drugs that abusers frequently combine to produce heightened effects.

Pharmacists should be on the constant lookout for red flags signaling potential abuse. Patients who hold suspicious prescriptions, return too quickly for refills, or show visible signs of addiction should all be scrutinized before they receive medications. Pharmacists are also required to adhere strictly to all refill-related policies.

On an individual level, people should never give prescription drugs to a friend, relative, or acquaintance. Only the person whose name appears on the prescription is allowed to possess or consume the medication.

Across the spectrum, from doctors to individual consumers, people should report suspected instances of drug diversion. Putting a stop to the practice will help slow addiction on the individual and societal levels. Doctors, pharmacists, and individuals should also recognize that drug diversion is often punishable by law. Irresponsible behavior that allows drugs to flow toward illegal channels can bring considerable consequences. To avoid legal issues while helping society overcome a devastating cycle of addiction, everyone involved should do their part to combat drug diversion.

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