Prescription opioid abuse among drug-involved street-based sex workers

Hilary L. Surratt, PhD, James A. Inciardi, PhD, Steven P.q Kurtz, PhD


National population surveys and individual studies over the past decade have documented the escalating abuse of a variety of prescription medications, particularly prescription opioids. Although surveillance data provide important information for estimating the prevalence of prescription opioid abuse in the general population, studies documenting the patterns of prescription drug abuse among chronic street-drug-using populations are extremely rare. This paper examines the abuse of prescription opioids among drug-involved street-based sex workers in Miami, Florida. The data for this study were drawn from an ongoing HIV intervention trial initiated in 2001, designed to test the relative effectiveness of two alternative HIV prevention protocols for this population. Participants in the study were recruited through traditional targeted sampling strategies, and complete data are available on 588 street-based sex workers. In terms of prescription drug abuse, 12.2 percent of the sample reported using at least one opioid analgesic in the past 90 days without having a legitimate prescription. Logistic regression analyses were conducted to examine the associations between prescription opioid abuse and its predictors. In the multivariate model, factors positively associated with prescription opioid abuse included: Caucasian race (OR = 2.53; 95 percent CI 1.30 to 4.91), current powder cocaine use (OR = 2.28; 95 percent CI 1.28 to 4.08), current heroin use (OR = 2.08; 95 percent CI 1.10 to 3.92), 90-day physical abuse/victimization (OR = 2.07; 95 percent CI 1.18 to 3.61), and shorter sex-work involvement (OR = 1.98; 95 percent CI 1.13 to 3.48). In contrast, daily crack smoking was negatively associated with prescription opioid abuse (OR = 0.61; 95 percent CI 0.33 to 1.10). This study provides some of the first empirical evidence to indicate that prescription opioid abuse is emerging in a heretofore unstudied community of marginalized drug-using sex workers. In addition, data on this population’s mechanisms of access to prescription opioids clearly suggest that there is an active black market for these drugs. These findings warrant intensive study to determine the relative contribution of each mechanism of diversion to the illicit market.


opioids, substance abuse, diversion, sex workers

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