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The Connection Between Opiate Painkillers and Heroin Addiction

Heroin abuse is a growing problem in the U.S., but the statistics on who is using the illicit substance may surprise you. No longer are heroin users mostly comprised of young, poor men, as was the case in the 1960s; today’s heroin addicts are older, affluent, and come from all walks of life. In a study conducted by JAMA, heroin addicts were found to have an average age of 23, and were likely to have begun using the drug after being prescribed painkillers by a doctor. Another study by the Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte found heroin abusers among nurses, lawyers, police officers, and ministers.

Opioid pills, such as oxycontin are derived from the same poppy plant that produces illicit heroin. Highly similar in chemical structure, both opioids and heroin bind to serotonin receptors in the brain, resulting in heightened euphoria; an increase in pain tolerance; and a slowing of the breathing and heartbeat. As the user develops a tolerance for the drug, more and more of the substance is needed to produce the same effect and alleviate cravings.

Because the effects of pain pills and heroin are so similar, people addicted to pain pills are starting to turn to heroin as a cheaper, more accessible option when they can no longer gain access to pills. Street heroin costs about a tenth of the price of of the equivalent amount of opiate pain medication in pill form. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly 50 percent of young heroin abusers used prescription opioid painkillers before becoming addicted to heroin.

It’s estimated that 80 percent of pain pills in the world are consumed in the U.S. alone, a staggering figure considering the U.S. makes up just 5 percent of the global population. Heroin overdose has in fact now overtaken car accidents as the number one preventable cause of acute death among Americans. Heroin use claims one life every 19 minutes.

Doctors have recently been less enthusiastic about prescribing opiates, particularly in states like Florida where “pill mills” are popular. New advances in medical technology have also allowed for the manufacturing of an abuse-deterrent Oxycontin pill - one that can’t be easily crushed or solubized for snorting or injecting. While these new measures have decreased Oxycontin abuse by as much as 22 percent within 2 years, the rate of heroin abuse has nearly doubled in the same time frame.

In general, the U.S. strategy of targeting users and doctors may not be the solution to a growing social problem. Heroin addicts are being led to lives of crime, poverty, illness, and death. If the U.S. hopes to stamp out the heroin problem, the focus needs to be on harm reduction and prevention. The best doctors don’t just want to wipe out symptoms. They want to get to the root of the disease and cure it. Many lives can be saved in America if this focus remains at the center of the war against heroin addiction.


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