Across the country, heroin use is growing at an alarming rate and is affecting a surprising segment of the population.
“Many teens in the city know not to touch it, but the message never got out to the suburbs,” said Kevin Roberts, who founded the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization in Chicago to help other families cope with the shock of teen heroin use. Roberts lost his son to heroin in 2010 after an overdose the first time his son tried it.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, initiations to heroin have increased 80 percent among 12- to 17-year-olds since 2009. In 2011, the most recent year for which national data is available, 510 young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 died of a heroin overdose. That figure was just 198 in 2001, meaning that the rate of young adult deaths caused by heroin more than doubled in one decade. Close to 90 percent of teen heroin addicts are white, data shows.
The biggest problem seems to be the connection between prescription painkillers and heroin. The opiate high that teens seek from drugs such as Oxycodone (the actual drug contained in OxyContin brand pills) may also be obtained from heroin, which is much cheaper, easier to buy, and offers users a more intense high.
“It’s hard to talk about the heroin problem without talking about the prescription drug problem,” notes Rafael Lemaitre, of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Given new research on skyrocketing prescription drug abuse, the link between opioid pills and heroin is even more alarming.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deaths from prescription drugs tripled nationwide between 2005 and 2010. In a recent national survey on teen drug abuse conducted by the University of Michigan, one in eight high school seniors admitted to using prescription painkillers they weren’t prescribed. Overall, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug overdose (from both prescription and non-prescription drugs) is now the leading cause of accidental deaths in the United States. Officials fear that the over-prescription of powerful painkillers and the lack of awareness about the danger associated with them could continue to fuel the problem.
“Kids are going to believe that this is not a problem, and parents are going to continue to leave their prescription opioids unattended if they don’t know about the risks,” said Wesley Clark, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at the Department of Health and Human Services.
While marijuana has historically been the usual suspect, prescription pain killers are now becoming the latest and most dangerous gateway drugs.
In dozens of interviews with former young heroin addicts, the Department of Health and Human Services found in early 2012 that every single heroin user had arrived at shooting up the same way: starting with expensive prescription drugs, which they purchased from friends for $20-$60. When they became too addicted to afford pills, they listened to friends who told them they could get a better, cheaper high if they used heroin instead. For $3-$10 for a two to three ounce bag, they said, they started off by snorting the drug, never thinking that they would end up injecting it. Most of them started shooting up within weeks.
According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, Mexican heroin production has increased significantly in recent years, from an estimated 7 metric tons in 2008, to 50 metric tons in 2012. That sevenfold increase has made heroin more available in metropolitan areas across the country, including Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.