Why has heroin abuse skyrocketed, who is using it, and what can be done about the problem? Prescription opioids abuse data suggests the reason for a resurgence of heroin use in America. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA):
“Today’s typical heroin addict starts using at 23, is more likely to live in the affluent suburbs. They are often unwittingly led to heroin through painkillers prescribed by his or her doctor.”
Accidental prescription drug overdose is now the leading cause of acute preventable death for Americans, even more so than deaths from car accidents. Many addiction professionals have suggested for years that individuals who become addicted to prescription painkillers commonly move on to illicit heroin use. This is due to the expense and difficulty of continuously obtaining prescription medications. When individuals can no longer obtain their prescription opioids, they often switch to heroin. A large percentage of those users are appalled to find that the heroin they use is not as strong as their prescription drugs. This too can lead to overdoses. All around, the situation is tragic.
In August 2010, an abuse deterrent version of OxyContin became available. Within two years, the choice of OxyContin as a drug of abuse went from 35.6% to 12.8%. That was the good news; the bad news is that the same study showed heroin use nearly doubled in the same period. Addicts started turning to heroin as the easily-abusable form of OxyContin became unavailable.
The abuse of opioid pills and heroin are both taking a tremendous toll on our communities. A representative with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently claimed that nearly half of young people who inject heroin say they abused prescription opioids before turning to the illegal drug. Heroin, a street drug, is unregulated, usually impure and often injected. As a result, IV heroin users suffer from collapsed veins, abscesses, infections of the heart lining and valves, and rheumatologic diseases. From sharing needles, IV heroin users are more likely to suffer from HIV, Hepatitis and other diseases.
Regardless of whether opioid drugs are prescribed pills or heroin, the amount of drugs available is shocking. Tom Frieden, the director of the CDC remarked recently about prescription pain medication:
“We found that health care providers in 2012 wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioids. That is enough for every American adult to have their own bottle of pills.”
Policies to restrict opioid medications, alter them and better monitor accessibility, are increasingly being implemented. While the crackdown on and regulation of these drugs is a good thing, abusers have become more creative, turning to heroin to feed their addiction when prescription pills are unavailable. We need to treat the core cause of drug addiction and make treatment services widely available, not stigmatize those who are suffering.