Abuse on the rise of prescription drug gabapentin, known as ‘Johnnys’

If you aren’t on this medication, chances are you know someone who is. It’s used to treat everything from pain to mood disorders and can be just what the doctor ordered for many.

But now, there is mounting research uncovering misuse of and even a black market for this popular prescription.

We’re talking about gabapentin. It’s approved for some types of seizures and nerve pain.

Doctors also use it off-label to treat everything from insomnia to migraines to anxiety. Sixty-four million prescriptions of it were sold in the U.S. in 2016, up more than 60% from four years earlier.

The thing is, experts say there is growing evidence it’s being abused, too. It’s even being sold on the streets under the name “Johnnys.”

Dr. Joseph Insler, an addiction psychiatrist, says he’s seeing it all too often.

“Sometimes, I’ve even experienced patients ask me for their “Johnnys” and then they’ll, maybe, catch themselves and say, ‘No, no, no. I mean gabapentin’,” he says.

Why is this prescription being misused?

“I think that some individuals may say that they use it to get high, and others may say they use it and get a drowsy effect. So, we’re talking about the euphoria versus sedation, “ says Rachel Vickers Smith, Ph.D.

Dr Vickers Smith wrote her dissertation on gabapentin abuse when studying drug abusers in Appalachia.

“We found a nearly 3000 percent increase from 2008 to about 2014 in individuals reporting gabapentin abuse for the purposes of getting high,” she says.

We wanted to see for ourselves, so we searched online. We easily found people talking about taking “Johnnys”, or gabapentin, to get high. There were also threads of people trying to spread awareness about the abuse.

Experts say gabapentin is typically misused by substance abusers who mix it with other drugs.

But, Dr. Insler says it’s also possible for people with legitimate prescriptions to misuse, too.

He says, “If somebody’s taking excessively high doses or needing early refills” or if their mood changes, family members or clinicians should see these signs as red flags.

A growing body of research shows the problem of abuse, especially among substance abusers is clear.  But some experts also worry about the number of prescriptions being handed out.

A recent New England Journal of Medicine letter warned that “clinicians who are desperate for alternatives to opioids” are “increasingly prescribing gabapentin” and that “evidence suggests that some patients misuse, abuse or divert gabapentin.”

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Dr Rachel Vickers Smith says, “ I think that’s why it’s really important to get out the message,” about abuse, in general.

Gabapentin is not a controlled substance or scheduled drug on the Federal level.

We reached out to several government agencies. There was little information on potential abuse although the National Institute on Drug Abuse pointed us to existing research and the DEA says it is beginning to receive calls.

Dr Vickers Smith says, “ I don’t think that gabapentin abuse is on the CDC, DEA’s, NIDA’s radar, in part because we had this opioid epidemic.”

All experts we talked to stress that this is NOT the next opioid epidemic, but they believe gabapentin abuse is something to watch closely and believe more research is needed.

We contacted two of the manufacturers of gabapentin, including Pfizer, which told us,  “Gabapentin is an important treatment option for their approved indications”.


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16 Responses

  1. Kelley says:

    The headline isn’t even a picture of “gabapentin ” good job news casters, trying to spread hysteria is hard when you can’t even get a picture right

    • Jm says:

      That is a a picture of a 600 mg tablet of gabapentin. I know that is the doe I take.

    • Natalie says:

      Wow must be nice to know what every single dosage and manufactured pill of gabapentin looks like. But last time I checked the pills pictured are 600mg of gabapentin and I took mine about an hour ago so unless they’ve changed since then chill.

  2. Sharon Barnes says:

    I cannot imagine wanting to take that stuff. I’d rather hurt than take it ever again.

    • Betty says:

      Evidently you don’t that bad. My face, tongue, shoulder, arm and back jump and twitch. The shocking pain is horrible and I can not eat or drink because of the spasms. Believe me the drug does not make you high when taken as prescribed. It this uneducated fear mongering articles that don’t have all the information that are the problem. I can function almost normally except for the pain is still there it never goes away, but Ican work and live a productive life with this drug. Without it it would be too hard to exercise and my body would soon become frozen and I would become wheelchair bound, with a feeding tube and a breathing tube. The affect of cancer treatment has damaged my body. so, I am not picking slow painful death over tasking a drug as prescribed. Uneducated people cause people with disability’s sufferenbpg and pain by making it to hard to get the medication they need. They need to crack down on law inforcement not new laws on prescribed drugs.

      • Sarah Stroud says:

        I too am on Gabapentin after nerve damage from cancer treatment. It helps stops the twitches and some of the pain. As with any drug, some people will abuse it ( I know prisons are a hotspot for this) but I need this drug to help function.

      • Mary says:

        I take 3600mg daily. I have absolutely no such side effects of any kind. It helps reduce the pain. I can go without it.

      • Shelley says:

        Very well said. Gabapentin is another drug that it seems the gov wants to stock their nose in and stop people who need it from getting it. I can’t get my pain meds anymore and gabapentin is the only other thing that helps a little bit for pain. Of course taken as prescribed.

    • Tisha says:

      You’ve got to be kidding me-it’s so trpsnaarently clear now!

  3. Jeanne Bussel says:

    As with Any drug Gabapentin can be misused. If you take it as prescribed it helps with pain & spasms from nerve damage.
    This is why Marijuana needs to be Legal in All 50 states.

  4. Renee Simmons says:

    I have been using gabapentin for fibromyalgia and neuropathy fo the past 6 years. It is the only way I can function day to day and have a, mostly and what I consider to be, normal life. Before using gabapentin, other treatment or medications made me so sick that I couldn’t walk very far or stand for long periods of time without complete and total exhaustion. I was having to use a cane and wheelchair, at times, just to do simple everyday things. That was 10 years ago. Now, I am 43 years old and work successfully as a special education teacher.

    With that said and in all the years of using this medication, never have I experienced a euphoria and that’s with taking up to 2700 milligrams daily. It used to make me drowsy, but that is a sideffect that has long ago subsided. I would imagine that, until you find the dose that works for you and have stuck with it long enough for the side effects to wear off, you may feel drowsy. Or, depending on how much pain you are in and what your tolerance of pain is, once you find your right dosage, you may experience a type of “euphoria” that comes with pain relief. So, what?!? Wouldn’t that be a great thing?!?

    My idea of why this medication is under attack is that, because it works for soooo many diagnoses and it is actually affordable (in comparison to most other medication), that certain people may feel that they aren’t making as much $$$ as they possibly can off of the sick. And, that is pissing them off.

    All of the crap they say about gabapentin like, it causing “dementia like” symptoms, etc. are probably actually being caused by your diagnosis(es). I don’t have memory or learning issues any more so with taking the medication as I did without taking it and, in addition to fibromyalgia and neuropathy, I also have hypothyroid, diabetes type II. So…people…do your research and be careful who you trust. Big pharma needs their $$ and they don’t care about you.

    I read : Perspective Gabapentin and Pregabalin for Pain — Is Increased Prescribing a Cause for Concern?, under the heading “Perspective” in the New England Journal of Medicine, and it only SUGGESTED that this may be an issue due to doctors over prescribing (prescribing it for things other than what it is approved for), but also states that this is in the protocol for management of pain (first is ibuprofen and acetaminophen, then gabapentin, before prescribing opioids). Gabapentin has NOT been PROVEN an issue with the same concern as opioid. Withdrawal from stopping the medication just means your pain is back.

    Before you get scared, read the journal article for yourself. I have provided the name of the article, since this website failed to cite their sources.

  5. Diana says:

    I take it for Fibromyalgia. I’ve never felt high on it; but I don’t abuse it. What bothers me is now insurances will use this as an excuse to not cover it. They already don’t cover the majority of my meds. I don’t take anything else for pain, because nothing is covered, anymore. I suffer with extreme chronic pain. I’m getting tired of not being able to get what I need because of all the drug addicts.
    For those of us who take things as prescribed, there shouldn’t be an issue; but we end up suffering because of the drug affects.

  6. Deborha Antoinette says:


    • Shelley says:

      Well I’ll take that compared to 24/7 chronic debilitating pain.

  7. Hake says:

    Gabapentin causes destruction of new brain synapses..causing memory issues.. RESEARCH IT

  8. NM says:

    Maybe if doctors didn’t prescribe it in place of pain meds for non-nerve pain, then there wouldn’t be enough surplus for people to sell and abuse. It’s ridiculous!!!

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