Ted Shumway

How Prescription Abusers Become Heroin Addicts

Posted on April 25th, 2016
Posted in Articles

Heroin use among rural and suburban populations is on the rise, and prescription painkillers are to blame. For decades, heroin use was mostly restricted to a certain demographic. Most heroin addicts were young men. They started using as teens and they came from low-income, often inner city neighborhoods. Now the typical heroin user starts in his early 20s, lives in the suburbs and started out abusing drugs prescribed to him by his doctor.

Heroin and Prescription Painkillers

If you aren’t familiar with opioids, the connection between these two drugs, one illegal, the other legal but controlled, may be a mystery. Narcotic prescription painkillers are opioids. That is, they are derived from the opium poppy. Heroin is also an opioid. Once upon a time it was used as a prescription, but the intense high that it causes makes it extremely addictive and it was quickly outlawed. Most narcotic painkillers aren’t far behind heroin in terms of addictiveness. They all produce a sense of euphoria and relaxation, and they all reduce pain. This is a potent mix of effects that often leads to abuse and addiction.

Making the Switch From Prescriptions to Heroin

In the early 2000s, doctors were prescribing a lot of narcotic painkillers. Why? They work really well. If you suffer from chronic or acute pain, these narcotics will make you feel better. The problem, of course, is the abuse and the resulting addiction. Many experts believe that doctors were too loose with their prescription pads. Another consequence of the flood of prescriptions for pain pills has been an epidemic of overdose deaths.

When the media, the government, doctors themselves and others realized what was happening, changes were made to restrict people from getting too much access to prescription narcotics. Pill mills were shut down. Doctors prescribed the drugs less often. Policy changes required prescriptions to be tracked. Certain pain pills were altered by pharmaceutical companies to make them more difficult to abuse. The end result was that prescriptions became more scarce and more expensive. So what is an addict to do? He needs his fix. Withdrawal from these drugs is terrible, and to say cravings are intense is an understatement. So, they turned to cheaper, more available heroin.

Heroin’s New Demographic

A lot of prescription painkiller abuse happened in the suburbs and in rural areas. It makes sense then that the new surge in heroin use is going on in these neighborhoods. Today’s typical heroin addict is likely to have started his habit with prescription narcotics. The changes made to restrict access to prescriptions were well-intended, but they had the unintended consequence of creating a new generation of heroin addicts. Instead of getting at the root problems of substance abuse and addiction, the changes simply shifted addiction from one substance to another.

When it comes to treating our growing population of heroin addicts, there are conflicting ideas, but one is gaining popularity: harm reduction. This philosophy of care is more popular in other countries, but it is gaining traction because research shows that it saves lives and reduces drug use. Harm reduction involves giving heroin addicts clean needles, a safe place to use or replacement drugs to help them quit. The idea is controversial, but other methods are expensive and too often don’t work. With more and more heroin addicts around the country, we need to do something to help them.

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