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From Pills to Heroin

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drug treatmentThe United States has an increasing heroin problem. Over six years, the number of people using heroin for the first time has almost doubled, from 90,000 in 2006, to 156,000 in 2012. During the past two decades, substance abuse counselors, law enforcement officers, and healthcare providers have noticed this disturbing trend.

In 2000, the number of people who died from heroin overdose was 1,842. By 2014, this number increased to 10,574, which shows the troubling situation. According to statistics, more Americans die from a drug overdose now than from motor vehicle accidents. In addition, in 2014, around 47,000 people died from a drug overdose, which was more than the number of persons who died in the peak year of the AIDS epidemic. The most worrisome issue regarding heroin users is that their first opioid exposures were to prescription pain relievers, which holds true for around 80% of today’s heroin addicts.

Theories on the Increase use of Heroin

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), heroin abuse rates are going up, death rates associated with heroin are increasing, and heroin abuse treatment rates are rising. NIDA suggests a few theories to explain the rise in heroin use in the last couple of decades. These include increased supply and demand, drug trafficking, and the country’s rise in prescription painkiller use. Many heroin users report that their first exposure to opioids was through prescription drugs.

In 1991, there were 76 million of opioid prescriptions given out in the U.S. This number increased to 219 million by 2011. In 2007, Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, paid $634 million in fines related to false claims.

Opiates vs. Opioids

Heroin, like licit pain relievers, is isolated from the opium poppy plant. Opium is a naturally-derived painkiller, which is often referred to as opiates. The term opioid was once used to denote that the substance was synthetically created. Opioid is now a catch-all term for any drug or substance that produces an analgesic effect by acting on opioid receptors in the body’s nervous system.

Any opioid, whether naturally-derived or synthetic, functions the same way. The body responds to pain through a process of stimulus and response. Something painful inflames the nerves in the body, which send a signal of pain to the brain. The brain sends back a signal of pain to the body region. Opioid drugs and heroin inhibit the brain’s response to painful stimuli, and provide an euphoric feeling that is pleasurable.

Tolerance and Addiction

Tolerance is the need for higher doses of heroin to achieve the analgesic effect. Dependence is the body’s need for regular, routine doses of a substance in order to prevent withdrawal symptoms. Addiction is a more complicated psychological phenomenon. It is marked by the physical havoc of tolerance and dependence, as well as the emotional and social toll that affects personal responsibilities and social relationships.

Rise in Heroin Use

The recent increased use of heroin coincides with a push in the early 2002 by the pharmaceutical companies to introduce new formulations of prescription opioids. OxyContin was being abused by millions of people, and the manufacturing company, Purdue Pharma, developed a pill that could not be melted down for injection. Heroin, on the other hand, is easily mixed with water for easy injection.

One user that was interviewed reported that he couldn’t afford prescription pills, and the heroin was much cheaper. Overall, prescription pain medications are becoming more difficult to obtain, so users are switching to heroin due to accessibility and cost factors.

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