In case you’ve literally had your head in the sand the past decade, our country is suffering a heroin epidemic. (How many times am I going to have to begin an article with that statement?) Our government estimates half a million Americans abused the drug in 2013. The National Institute on Drug Abuse claims that same year, over 8,000 people in our country died of an overdose of heroin, usually combined with some other sort of drug—cocaine was the primary culprit. We’ve reported on the plague of heroin and its evil cousin prescription painkillers pretty much nonstop. America: Land of the free, home of the brave…plus opiates and guns, if you’re into that sort of thing, and clearly, a lot of people are.
This Just In: Heroin’s Newest Friends
What’s the latest disturbing news in Heroinville, USA? NPR released a report this summer revealing the largest increase in heroin use is among women and young white (non-Hispanic) Americans, aged 18 to 25 (average income $20K, significant because heroin used to be a lot more expensive). This shift is mostly shocking because these demographics used to tout the lowest rates of heroin usage. Also of note alongside this change in user demographic, rampant heroin use was previously considered an underground urban issue but it’s now more prominent in our nation’s beloved Midwest. Fifteen years ago, the majority of the heroin-related deaths were older black people and the areas struggling the most with the drug were the West and the Northeast. Obviously, minorities and big cities aren’t in the clear by any means– but the fact that opiate abuse is only overflowing into other areas, rather than decreasing, is quite upsetting.
Why the Change in Cliques?
The former head of the Center for Disease Control, Dr. Tom Friedman, insists the shocking rate of increased heroin abuse is primarily an inevitable conclusion to Americans’ addiction to opioids, i.e., prescription painkillers. We—The United States of America—first met Oxycontin in 1995 and have been obsessed with it every since. There is (or maybe, was), especially among women, a stigma associated with shooting up with a needle, but popping Oxycontin, Percocet or Vicodin is sort of an upper middle class free-for-all. Truthfully, it always grosses me out when jokes are made amongst women about popping pills and mixing them with wine. Often with no regard for the long-term consequences or the possibility of developing a serious addiction. It’s not cute, but I feel like it’s constantly portrayed that way.
Friedman also attributes the rise in opiate use to the serious discount on a hit via heroin, as opposed to prescription pain medicine. He says the street price for heroin now is about 1/5 of what it costs to buy pain pills. He told NPR, “As a doctor who started my career taking care of patients with HIV and other complications from injection drugs, it’s heartbreaking to see injection drug use making a comeback.”
The Oft Repeated Solutions
Friedman echoed everything that’s been said before regarding how to tame the dragon. More prescription regulation. Better treatment. Better policing. But he also mentioned Naloxone, a drug that can be administered to a patient in order to thwart death from a heroin overdose. It’s kind of like an EpiPen for opiates. This tactic has been catching on in various cities, but doesn’t seem to be a household name in every paramedic crew and police force yet. Also, although it saves lives, it ultimately doesn’t really solve the problem.
Along with policing drug dealers, I think policing doctors more is also crucial. Not to make light of the physical addiction people can develop with alcohol, but the physical addiction that can happen when someone—even an unsuspecting housewife with back pain— gets a Percocet high, seems way more extreme and a much quicker hook. Fostering more holistic approaches to medicine at the pain management level and offering alternatives to abstinence-only treatment at the heroin level seem like solid starts on a rather daunting journey.
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