Heroin Epidemic Strikes Arizona Hard as Opioid Users Make the Switch

Posted on March 25th, 2016
Posted in Substance Abuse

It should come as no surprise to those watching the explosion in opioid prescription drug abuse across the United States, including Arizona, that when the price of feeding the habit becomes too high, users will switch to a cheaper and more easily available alternative — heroin. A report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out that heroin use has nearly doubled from 2011 to 2013.

Heroin use more than doubled in adults aged 18 to 25 in just the past 10 years. The report also pointed out that heroin use is now being seen in demographics that historically have had low heroin use: women, people with higher incomes, and privately insured individuals.

As if those numbers aren’t frightening enough, the CDC says that the amount of overdose deaths related to heroin use has increased from 2,679 in 2010 to 3,635 in 2012. Arizona is one of 28 states that had an increase in heroin deaths.

A Cronkite News analysis of data gathered by the Arizona Department of Health Services’ Bureau of Public Health Statistics showed there were 2,050 heroin overdoses reported from 2009 to 2013. That analysis found that heroin overdoses in Arizona went up every year, from 277 in 2009 to 562 in the year 2013.

Why the Switch?

When people who’ve become dependent on prescription opioid drugs such as OxyContin, oxycodone and hydrocodone find that they can’t get any more prescriptions or that the cost of the drugs on the street becomes prohibitive, they often switch to a cheaper and more readily available drug to get high — heroin. The CDC report also highlighted the fact that 45% of those who used heroin were also addicted to prescription opioid painkillers.

In Arizona, the switch became all that much easier for users in search of drugs to satisfy their addiction as heroin flooded the market, according to the Mojave Daily News. Heroin-related deaths in Arizona are increasing “because prescription drugs are obviously tied to heroin rates and consequences,” Kelly Charbonneau, the substance abuse grant coordinator for the Arizona Department of Health Services, told Cronkite News in January 2015.

Heroin Use Around the State

As heroin use surges across Arizona, the specifics of this deadly epidemic take a more personal turn:

  • Almost 1,500 addicts move into the small city of Prescott every three months.
  • In Yavapai County, as heroin access becomes easier, addiction to the drug is beginning to be seen among Native Americans, and overdoses are climbing as well.
  • In Pima County, the heroin overdose rate is almost twice as high as in any other county in Arizona.
  • The five zip codes showing the most increase were all in the Tucson area.

Supply Comes From Mexico

People in Prescott who use heroin get the drug directly from Phoenix after it’s been smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico. As reported in the Casa Grande Dispatch, the drug becomes less potent the further it has to travel from the border. That’s because dealers cut heroin every time it changes hands, bulking up the product in order to maximize profits. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary, there was a 232% increase in the amount of heroin seized coming across the Southwest Border from 2008 to 2012.

Tucson has become an epicenter for the heroin epidemic in Arizona, as well as the importation and distribution of the drug to California, Texas and elsewhere. Geography, increased demand and transportation all play a role in heroin’s escalating problem in Arizona.

What Can Be Done?

Federal, state and local programs are working to try to address the heroin epidemic through a few approaches:

  • Increasing access to substance abuse treatment services, which include medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction
  • Expanding naloxone access and training so the lifesaving drug can be administered in the critically important first minutes after heroin overdose
  • Increasing access to preventive services, such as sterile injection equipment —  as local policy allows

Heroin addiction can and must be treated in order for those addicted to it to have an opportunity to live a drug-free life. Naloxone alone isn’t the answer. At most, it’s a brief, albeit lifesaving, intervention. Proper treatment following the overdose is essential in order to overcome the life-destroying addiction to heroin.

By Suzanne Kane

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