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As most Americans are aware, our country is fighting an opioid epidemic that claims thousands of people’s lives a year.  What may surprise you is that sometimes, grandma and grandpa are the ones selling drugs in your neighborhood. I imagine some readers are saying, it’s not possible that “grandparents” are the drug dealers on the streets of America!  Unfortunately, due to a variety of unfortunate circumstances relating to economics and vulnerability, some seniors, have resorted to selling drugs.  

Maybe more than any other population group, seniors have relatively easy access to prescription drugs. Obviously, older Americans more so than younger people, because of their physical condition, are more regular candidates for potent prescription medication.  For example, according to the American College of Preventive Medicine, elderly people make up 13 percent of the American population but receive one-third of all prescribed medications. Considering how accessible prescriptions drugs are for seniors, older persons are in a unique position to turn around and sell their medication. However, according to Sharon Walsh, director of the University of Kentucky Center for Drug and Alcohol Research, seniors are not dealing drugs in the traditional sense, but rather selling these pills to a network of family and friends.

So, what’s going on with seniors that make them more likely to sell their drugs?  First countless seniors live on a fixed-income in addition to being riddled by poverty. Keep in mind this money has to be stretched every month for basic expenses like housing, health care, nutrition and transportation. Imagine only having $1,000 a month to live on. Unfortunately this helps to explain why seniors supplement their income through illegal streams.  Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, County Drug and Alcohol Director Steve Ross issued a report stating, “Our seniors are in a very volatile state right now because what we’re learning is that there are a number of seniors out there who are selling the prescription painkiller to pay for their other medications and/or for food.”

Furthermore, seniors have fallen prey to younger, more sophisticated drug dealers who purposefully target the elderly. Because of their easy access to prescriptions, drug dealers promise seniors money in exchange for their medication, which the drug dealers will later sell for large profits. According to a report by the Ohio Substance Abuse Monitoring Network, “Reportedly, dealers stand outside of drugstores and approach seniors about selling their prescriptions, or dealers will convince a senior to go to the doctor and fake pain to get a prescription.” The report goes on to state, “If the senior agrees, the dealer will drive the senior to the doctor and to the pharmacy to fill the prescription and will then pay them.” “That’s the only way they (seniors) can make ends meet.” 

With seniors turning to selling drugs to pay for their basic necessities, are grandma and grandpa going to jail? While, elderly Americans are being arrested for their unfortunate role in the opioid crisis, prosecutions are uncommon, and when prosecuted sentencing is light. Captain Jeff Orr, president of the Ohio Task Force Commanders Association said in reference to older drug dealers, “If we get information about sellers, we are following up on it.  Are they going to prison for it? No. They are being diverted to probation at that age.”

While it’s comforting to learn that our grandparents aren’t doing hard time, the mere thought of them being arrested and thrown in the back of a police car should make people pause.

So what is being done to combat the opioid epidemic in our country? While the White House and Congress have taken steps to combat the opioid crisis, I think our elected leaders in Washington, D.C. would be better served if they more thoroughly investigated the root causes of why people sell drugs. Specifically, as it relates to this issue, why seniors need to sell drugs to earn enough money for their basic necessities. Clearly many older Americans are financially strapped.  Consequently, the policies which the administration and some members of Congress have endorsed, such as cutting financial resources for health care and affordable housing programs that benefit seniors, could make elderly people more impoverished and more susceptible to selling medications.

Common sense dictates if we want to get seniors to stop selling their medications then we should enact laws that  provide them with the financial security they need, so they are not tempted to sell drugs to pay for their rent, health care or food. 


Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School.  Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.