Opium, the grandfather to heroin, has been around for thousands of years. Ancient Mesopotamians used to grow opium poppies, and their use continued on spreading from the Egyptians and Persians north to Europe and east as far as China. In the early 1800s, morphine was derived from opium and used to “cure” opium addiction.
In 1874, a chemist figured out how to create heroin. It was manufactured commercially beginning in 1898. By this time morphine was known to be highly addictive and more potent than opium, so doctors were on the lookout for a way to help people withdraw from it. They thought heroin was the answer.
We’ve been stuck with heroin ever since. Throughout the world it has been recognized as a dangerous substance—highly addictive and with particularly vicious withdrawal symptoms—but people still use it. In recent years it has taken on new appeal alongside the growing black market use of prescription pain medications. Why is this?
Since many prescription pain meds (think OxyContin, Dilaudid, Percocet, and a host of others) are opioids, just like heroin, they fill the same receptors within the brain and to a certain degree can be swapped out for one another. Because heroin is less expensive than black market prescription pills, people are switching from pills to heroin in large numbers right now: four out of every five users recently started on heroin were abusing prescription meds before that. At this point the heroin epidemic, at least in the United States, is largely being fueled by abuse of prescription meds.
NEW REPORTS ON HEROIN USE SHOW HOW THIS CONNECTION IS CHANGING THE GAME
The CDC has released a report showing the rate of deaths by heroin overdose has increased along with the elevated number of addicts. The death rate has spiked shockingly in the last few years. From 2000 to 2010, the death rate rose by 6 percent over the course of the decade. In the next three years (2010 to 2013) it shot up much more drastically with a 37 percent increase.
The demographic of heroin users has also changed—perhaps because so many are now getting hooked on heroin after beginning with prescription drug abuse. Whereas heroin was previously considered to be an urban drug for people in poverty, it is now crossing as many social lines as are crossed by prescription pain medication.
People who are used to abusing prescription meds aren’t going to be prepared for the unpredictability of heroin. It varies in potency from dealer to dealer and even from batch to batch, and is diluted with different substances which cannot generally be identified. Someone just switching to heroin may be taken by surprise at the strength of a batch, or at the strength of withdrawals, and could easily overdose in the attempt to find the right level of dosage to stave off withdrawal. It’s not a pretty scene.
Because of this interconnection, several states in the USA (especially in the Northeast, where heroin usage rates are particularly high) are now exploring ways to cut back on heroin use and the over-prescribing of pain meds at the same time. Many state and law enforcement officials feel that true progress in reducing the heroin problem will only be made attacking both prongs of the opioid abuse situation at the same time. In something of a mixed blessing, enough states are having problems with heroin right now that they are communicating with each other and comparing notes on the best tactics to combat the problem. With a bit of luck and determination, this could be the final spike in heroin use before it’s conquered at last.