It’s Everywhere: Heroin’s Grip on America

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America’s heroin abuse problem has dramatically changed. 


Once a drug that was confined to dangerous city streets, heroin is now a part of suburban life in even the wealthiest and most picturesque of neighborhoods. The same goes for quiet, rural communities in small-town America. Women and people with higher levels of income are using heroin at higher levels than ever before. Not only are more people using it, but today’s heroin is frequently being tampered with—making the risk of overdose even greater.


How did we get here? And what we can do to stop it?


Heroin’s Deadly Reputation


For decades, society knew and accepted that heroin was a dangerous and highly-addictive drug that frequently caused deadly overdoses. The popular concept of heroin was that of a street drug, used in inner cities by young, poor minorities who had no qualms about sharing dirty needles. 


It’s safe to say that people in middle-class and upper-class suburbs of the same cities—and the peaceful rural communities on the outskirts—likely felt immune to the dangers of heroin. This terrible drug would never infiltrate their communities. 


But it happened. Fueled by the opioid abuse epidemic, heroin is now touching the lives of Americans everywhere, with increased use in nearly every demographic.


Heroin Use Is Skyrocketing


Men’s heroin abuse is still greater than women’s, but the margin between them has diminished in the last decade. The larger issue is how much heroin use has risen across the board for both men and women, with varying ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.


According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 1 million Americans reported using heroin in 2016. The number of people using heroin for the first time is also high, with 170,000 people starting heroin use in 2016—nearly twice as many people as a decade before (90,000 in 2006).


Comparing 2004 statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to 2014 statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also shows an alarming contrast in heroin use. Over this decade, heroin use dramatically increased for many groups, including:


  • Women – From 2004 to 2013, the number of women using heroin doubled.


  • People with higher income levels – Between 2004 and 2013, heroin use for people making between $20,000 and $49,999 increased by 77%. People making more than $50,000 were not far behind, with a 60% increase in heroin use.


  • People with private health insurance – While people with no insurance coverage or Medicaid (health insurance provided by the government) are still more likely to use heroin, heroin usage increased by 63% for people with private health insurance. 


Today, white people are trying and using heroin more frequently than any other race. In fact, nearly 90% of patients who began regular use of heroin in the last decade were white – compared to just over 50% in the 1960s. 


Clearly, the picture of heroin use has changed. It is no longer confined to the city streets. Only about 25% of current heroin users live in urban areas, which means that most heroin users (75%) now live in suburban or rural areas.


The Link Between Painkillers and Heroin Use


Many people who use heroin begin by using prescription opioids, which create an additional pathway into heroin addiction. Both heroin and prescription painkillers (such as OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet) are opioid substances and behave similarly in the brain.


People who abuse prescription opioids are 19 times more likely to use heroin. In the past, more people would try heroin before other opioids. Now, most people who use heroin started using opioids with prescription medications first. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 45% of people addicted to heroin are also addicted to prescription opioids.


Why would anyone go from taking pills to injecting heroin? It boils down to three main reasons:


  • Heroin is stronger
  • Heroin is cheaper
  • Heroin is more accessible than prescription opioids


Sometimes a person who is addicted to prescription opioids will seek out heroin after they have exhausted all of their other resources. On the street, prescription oxycodone (OxyContin) can cost up to $100 per pill. Even with a prescription, opioid painkillers still cost significantly more than heroin. Many people turn to heroin simply to save money but end up keeping—and even worsening—their drug addiction.


Imagine if a young adult is prescribed oxycodone after a back injury. He begins taking a little extra for the pain without asking his doctor. As his body becomes more tolerant of the drug, he starts needing more and more. Eventually, he needs the drug to feel well enough to even get through the day. He is addicted, but his prescription ends. He can’t afford the price of pills on the street, so the $10 bag of heroin that might keep him from feeling so sick from withdrawal starts to look like a good option.


Once this occurs, everything changes because heroin is rarely 100% heroin—often it is cut with fentanyl or even stronger synthetic opioids. Many users don’t know that they are getting something other than “normal” heroin. But one hit of today’s heroin can kill in minutes, and it can happen to anyone.


Hope in the Fight Against Heroin


Nearly every aspect of heroin and the people who use it has changed since the 1960s. With each transformation, this drug becomes increasingly deadly and affects more people. No one is certain where we will go from here, but it is important to never be complacent about heroin and how it might impact your family.


If you or a loved one is battling heroin addiction, there is hope. The Kimberly Center provides evidence-based, compassionate treatment for addiction to heroin and many other drugs. In our programs, you will find your inner strength and create a network of loved ones and counselors to help you along your lifelong road to recovery. To learn more about our services, contact us today at 855-452-3683.

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