Drugs Used for Non-Medicinal Purposes

Virtually any prescription drug can be consumed for reasons other than its medical purpose; however, it is usually drugs with psychotropic properties that are the focus of abuse.

Some of the more popular prescription drugs for abuse include opiate-based drugs for pain relief, tranquillizers, stimulants and amphetamines, and sedatives and barbiturates.

  • Opioids include pain medications with active ingredients such as morphine, oxycodone and codeine, whereas tranquillizers include benzodiazepines such as diazepam (Valium®) and alprazolam (Xanax®) that are often prescribed to reduce stress and panic attacks.
  • Stimulants include dextroamphetamine (Adderall®) as well as methylphenidate (Ritalin®), whereas barbiturates include drugs used to treat anxiety, sleep disorders and seizures such as pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal®) and mephobarbital (Mebaral®).
  • Other common legal drugs that can be abused for their psychoactive effects include those obtained without a prescription referred to as over-the-counter drugs. These consist of drugs such as cough medicines, sleep aids and antihistamines.  For example, common over the counter medicines that contain the precursors ephedrine and pseudoephedrine can be combined with other ingredients to produce the synthetic stimulant, methamphetamine. Although these medicines are often abused, they will not be the focus of this document.
  • Although not a psychotropic drug, anabolic steroids can be abused by individuals who wish to boost their athletic ability and/or physical appearance. For example, in the 2004 Canadian Addiction Survey it was indicated that approximately 0.6% of Canadians over the age of 15 used steroids at some point in their lives.
  • Although often not mentioned in large-scale drug use surveys, studies have found that students engage in the non-medical use of prescription asthma inhalers. U.S. research examining the abuse of asthma inhalers among students found that approximately 9% had engaged in lifetime non-medical use of inhalers, and such rates increased with grade level (ranging from Grade 5 to Grade 10). It was also found that approximately one of every five boys who possessed a prescribed asthma inhaler had been approached to sell or trade it.


Find more information on the most common prescription drugs found in a family medicine cabinet that can be used by teens or others to get high.