Is the Heroin Epidemic Comparable to War?

heroinHeroin in the United States is becoming more and more prevalent, especially reaching epidemic proportions in the Northeast, the western desert zones and the Pacific Northwest. There are also pockets of higher abuse levels in portions of the Appalachian Mountains and in Oklahoma. Nationally, heroin use has been on the rise since at least 2007.   Comparing 2006 and 2012, there are now twice as many new users of heroin. While the number of teens using heroin has been dropping, the drug is enjoying the most growth and popularity among 18 to 25 year olds.   Heroin users in this age group now account for 26% of total admissions into rehab programs.

Law enforcement officials and healthcare professionals aren’t sure how to respond, and have been debating and testing new methods of fighting this problem. Some like Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, have decided to treat the heroin problem primarily as a public health crisis. They are moving to spread public awareness campaigns, to fund better rehab programs with more beds for inpatients, and to move the focus away from merely punishing offenders.

Other Governors in New England are taking similar tactics and are in fact collaborating on a regional effort to reduce the heroin problem in all the eastern states together. They have found that prescription drug abuse is often a precursor to heroin abuse (because heroin is cheaper and often less regulated than prescription drugs).   According to researchers from Brandeis University, it takes about three years for a region to transition from prescription drugs to heroin.

Because of this, a lot of the New England officials’ focus includes the effort to rein in the over-prescription of strong opioids. In just one drug take-back day in Connecticut the state was able to collect 9,000 pounds of prescription drugs, so it seems there’s some merit to this approach.

Others are taking the opposite tactic, taking the “war” in the “War on Drugs” much more literally. These people are advocating such things as reading children’s diaries and searching through their phones, apps and email. One anti-heroin program called Dare2Know even provides parents with free drug tests, with the understanding that the parents will force their children to take the tests at home. A speaker from the organization explains their position: “If a child knows a drug test may be given, they will be less likely to try any drug.”

It’s easy to see why these people think it will be effective. People from 18 to 25 are frequently still living with their parents or in close contact with them, and if they’re the demographic most likely to be using heroin and other hard drugs, it makes a certain sense to ask the parents to keep an eye on their kids—even when they’re not technically kids anymore.


When we talk about this type of war, most people are thinking with something like the following definition (from the American Heritage Dictionary): “a concerted effort or campaign to combat or put an end to something considered injurious.”

In this context, yes, the heroin problem can definitely be considered a war. The problem with looking at it this way is that many of the other definitions for “war” are inherently combative, pitting one group against another. If it’s the state against heroin addicts, dealers against residents, or parents against their children, this sets up an unnecessarily combative situation. It’s much better to look at it as the citizens of New England are beginning to—as a public health crisis which will require everybody’s ingenuity and cooperation to overcome.

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