In the last two decades, health care providers have been treating pain more aggressively, resulting in ten times the medical use of prescription painkillers (opioids) such as Vicodin and OxyContin. (Center for Disease Control) Concurrent with the increase in medical use has been the increase in non-medical use of these prescription painkillers and their consequences of increased addiction treatment admissions, increased emergency room visits and increased fatal overdoses. And by statistic, 80% of heroin users start with these prescription painkillers.
Heroin Use in the US
Heroin use in the United States continues to rise, as does drug-use in general. According to a 2013 report by SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), the number of Americans who are using drugs has increased by around 50 percent in the last ten years.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2002 to 2011) determined that prescription painkillers are a “gateway drug” for some people, opening the door leading to their heroin use.
One factor in switching from prescription painkillers to heroin is the cost, as heroin is cheaper on the streets than prescription drug pills, as well as easier to buy. Another factor is the similar chemical composition of the opioid prescription painkillers and heroin, with both drugs inducing a feeling of euphoria in the user.
Just in the past decade, heroin use has increased by about 50 percent.(SAMHSA) According to survey, 166,000 Americans were using heroin in 2002, based on past month use. In 2012, that number had nearly doubled, with 335,000 Americans using heroin. (SAMHSA 2013)
The most recent high-profile incident involving possible heroin overdose and bringing attention once again to the prescription painkiller/heroin connection was the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has made recommendations that legislators and healthcare providers take effective measures to curtail both the frequency and the dosage of prescriptions for opioid painkillers.
Also according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the overall rate of death by drug overdose has increased by nearly five times since 1990, second only to vehicular deaths in the unintentional injury death category. (2007)
Of those overdose deaths, it is prescription painkillers which are fast outpacing the currently second and third most deadly drugs, cocaine and heroin respectively. But with the connection between prescription painkiller use and heroin, it is not difficult to predict that heroin use and its death by overdose will tend to keep pace with its gateway drug
According to an article on the Southern California investigation (Operation Dirty Lake) which resulted in 16 pharmacists and others being charged with trafficking OxyContin from Medicare, many young heroin users started with OxyContin and other prescription pills.
Sarah Pullen who worked on Operation Dirty Lake as a special agent for the DEA(Drug Enforcement Administration) noted that when people cannot afford the cost of the pills(prescription painkillers) or when they are “looking for an increased high”, they move over to using heroin. She added that we are now seeing a “whole new increase of heroin abuse” directly attributable to prescription drug abuse.
Solutions to Heroin Use
In recent years, both the state and federal governments have taken measures to tighten restrictions on the dispensing and use of prescription painkillers in an effort to mitigate the escalating non-medical use and abuse.
The government is also cracking down on pharmacists and physicians who are dishonestly and illegally profiting from Americans’ high demand for these dangerously addictive narcotic painkillers, to say nothing of their breach of ethical and moral responsibility to do no harm to their patients or fellow Americans.
On a grassroots level, it is each of our responsibility to become properly informed and educated as to the very real dangers of prescription painkillers, their highly addictive nature and their very real and dangerous connection to heroin use and abuse with all its consequences.