Cheap Heroin Fueling New American Epidemic

Posted on October 27th, 2014
Posted in Drug Addiction

In the 1970s, when heroin consumption hit its peak, the drug was seen as a profitable investment for criminal drug gangs because of the high price it fetched on the black market. Worth more than its weight in gold, heroin was a source of massive ill-gotten gains for distribution networks with access to lucrative consumer markets in Europe and the United States.

It is often said that the more things change, the more they stay the same – and this perfectly describes the situation with heroin today. Once again heroin use is on the increase in the Western world, and it remains a wellspring of profit for manufacturers and dealers. Not so much for the growers, mostly poor farmers entrenched in poverty and subject to violence and exploitation at the hands of the drug gangs and corrupt government officials. And the users of heroin who slip into addiction are the ultimate losers in the international drug trade, as their drug of choice slowly eats them alive from the inside out, destroying their minds and bodies as it steals their hopes and dreams.

But while the story is familiar, the dynamics of the new heroin epidemic have changed in a dangerous way. Supplies of the drug are at an all-time high, according to the United Nations’ 2014 World Drug Report, which estimates that 741,000 acres across the world are now being used to grow poppies. It is the lovely poppy flower that provides the raw material from which heroin is produced, and the current acreage of land dedicated to poppy production is the largest recorded since the first World Drug Report was issued in 1998. Naturally, when supplies of any product are booming, prices will plummet, and such is the case with heroin. Online drug shoppers who frequent encrypted, secretive websites or scan Craigslist forums for coded advertisements can get heroin for as little as $4 to $10 per dose, with convenient pick-up and home delivery options included in the price of the drug.

At first consideration, the price drop might seem to make the drug less attractive to dealers. But lower prices always mean an expanded customer base, and online trading networks have made it much easier for drug sellers to find willing buyers. Consequently, there is still big money to be made in heroin as long as it can be moved in large quantities, and this is why the Mexican drug cartels have become the biggest heroin suppliers in the coveted North American heroin market. These psychotically ruthless alliances have the financial resources and logistical expertise to keep the heroin supply spigots wide open. No matter how low heroin prices fall, the cartels will still be able to exploit the wholesale-retail price gap to make participation in the heroin trade a highly profitable operation.

And as profitable as heroin is right now for drug peddlers with access to the North American market, the future could be much brighter still. After a prolonged absence as a fixture on the U.S. drug scene, heroin has returned with a vengeance, its explosion in use driven by a concurrent epidemic involving the abuse of prescription painkillers (opioids) that belong to the very same class of drugs.

OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet: Opening the Gateway to Heroin Addiction

Between 1999 and 2010, prescriptions for opioid painkillers rose by 300 percent in the United States. These drugs are highly effective, and more and more doctors began prescribing them for moderate as well as severe pain.

But despite reassurances from the pharmaceutical companies, these narcotics proved to be shockingly addictive. When patients began exceeding recommended dosages – and sometimes even when they used only as much as they were told to use – many developed fierce drug dependencies. As available supplies exploded, a black market for drugs like OxyContin (oxycodone) opened up as well, and it was soon discovered these pills could deliver an intense mind-altering experience if crushed and snorted or dissolved and injected.

But high costs, reforms in prescription practices and tamper-proof formulas that can’t be crushed or dissolved have conspired to make opioid painkillers harder to acquire and addictions to them harder to support. One would hope this might encourage opioid addicts to seek treatment, but instead many have chosen to switch from prescription drugs to heroin. The reality is that any opium derivative is capable of satisfying the cravings of an opioid addict, and with the drop in heroin prices, it was probably inevitable that people addicted to painkilling drugs would start to look in this direction.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that 80 percent of recently diagnosed heroin addicts started on pills like OxyContin or Vicodin. But they also say that only 3 percent of America’s 2 million prescription opioid addicts have made this switch so far.

This is an ominous statistic, because it means that prescription opioids have only begun to flex their muscles as gateway drugs for heroin. As long as opioid painkiller addiction remains rampant, the potential for explosive growth in heroin use and addiction is at the highest threat level. Injecting heroin has always had a reputation as an unclean and unsafe practice (which is true), but as more opioid addicts discover how widely available “snort-able” heroin is, they may begin to see the drug as a far less unsavory option. The price difference between heroin and prescription opioids is a huge source of concern, and if the stigma attached to heroin begins to decrease, it could truly open the floodgates for the re-emergence of this toxic chemical killer.

Stopping Heroin Means Stopping All Opioids

Prescription drug abuse is opening the door for heroin abuse, but one good way to shut that door tight is for opioid addicts to get into treatment as soon as the trouble starts. Drug addiction is always hazardous, but opioid abuse causes more overdose deaths than any other drug class – by far – and the awareness of how dangerous even prescription opioid painkillers are still needs to be raised significantly.

But the most important actions to stop opioid abuse must be taken on the preventive end. Medical patients need to learn to tread carefully when given these medications, never straying from dosage recommendations and letting their doctors know immediately if they feel they need additional intervention for pain. And physicians have a responsibility to pass out prescriptions for these drugs only as a last resort, and only after all other attempts to manage pain safely have proven inadequate.

Indirectly these actions will undermine the trends that are helping to drive the new American heroin epidemic. This is of the utmost importance, because if this problem isn’t addressed more effectively now, the situation could devolve into a true public health nightmare.

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