The Suburban Heroin Epidemic


The suburban heroin problem that has shocked everyone.

Heroin is an illicit drug that has long been associated with the inner city, impoverished neighborhoods, and back alley dealers.  Over the past decade there has been a shift from the major metropolitan areas to the suburbs that surround them.  PBS recently published an article that pointed to an alarming 300% increase in heroin deaths in Maine over the past three years.  Roosevelt University, in Chicago, has conducted several studies on heroin use in the Chicago metro area and has published statistics showing that heroin use has doubled in suburban Cook County, and has more than quadrupled in some suburban counties.

What is Heroin

Heroin is an opiate drug derived from the opium poppy, a plant that has been used since before recorded history for its painkilling effects.  Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid analgesic that was first introduced commercially in 1898 by the Bayer Co., which had modified the morphine molecule to create a more powerful and effective painkiller.  It acts on the same receptors in the brain that the natural opiates affect, and produces a euphoric feeling as well as diminishing feelings of pain.  Heroin was sold as an over the counter painkiller and cough remedy until it was effectively made illegal without a prescription by the Harrison Act in 1914.

Heroin, as well as all other opioid drugs, has a high incident of dependency and addiction in users.  Heroin dependency is characterized by tolerance (having to take more and more of the drug to get the same desired effect) and withdrawal (physical and psychological symptoms that occur when the user stops using the drug). 

Why the Suburbs?

A Roosevelt University study titled “Understanding Suburban Heroin Use” (available for download in PDF format here), shows that hospital discharges due to heroin use are down 67% in the city of Chicago but have risen over 200% in the suburban counties nearby.  The same study indicates that a significant increase in Mexican heroin production has made the drug more widely available across the country, that more white suburban users are initiating heroin use, and that these users are using the drug intravenously at younger ages.  The statistics clearly define a pattern of heroin moving out of the city and into the suburbs, a finding that has been consistent in similar studies across the country.

The Roosevelt study found three paths to heroin initiation that were identified by interviewing suburban heroin users.  The three paths were:

1. Prescription pill users changing to heroin.

Prescription pill abuse has been on the rise among young people for more than a decade.  Some users who become addicted to opioid prescription pills transition to heroin as a cheaper option.

2. Cocaine use leading to heroin use.

Many people who use cocaine may turn to heroin to help them come down from a cocaine high.

3. Poly-drug users (people who use different drugs to become intoxicated without a defined drug of choice) who become addicted to heroin.

Poly-substance users are more likely psychologically addicted to being high without a preference for one particular drug.  These users are at a high risk of developing dependency when using heroin and this path to initiation was the most common of the three, slightly edging out the other two.

Despite the path to initiation, one thing that seems consistent among suburban heroin users is a lack of education on how the drug affects the body and the high risk of dependency.  Suburban parents may find it hard to imagine that their kids might be exposed to heroin, but all the pertinent data indicates that their children are quickly becoming the most likely group to be exposed to it.  Both at home and at school heroin education may be the only factor that can reverse this trend.

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