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Heroin Use Soars Among Caucasians Who Abuse Painkillers

A research study led by Silvia Martins, MD, PhD, from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health looked at the frequency of non-medical prescription opiate use and the risk of heroin-related behaviors. She found that past year, heroin use spiked among those taking opiates painkillers such as oxycontin, and these increases varied by race and ethnicity. The most significant rise in heroin use was among Hispanics and non-Hispanic Caucasians, where the rate of heroin use for the non-Hispanic Caucasians increased by 75 percent in 2008-2011 compared to earlier years.

Non-medical prescription opioid use is defined as using a substance that is not prescribed or taking a drug only for the experience or the feeling it causes. Dr. Silvia Martins who is an associate professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, sheds light on the racial and ethnic differences in trends of non-medical opiate and heroin use over time.

Using data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a large nationally representative household sample of 67,500 people and self-reported heroin use during the last 12 months. The researchers examined the change in patterns of past year non-prescription drug and heroin use between 2002-2005 and 2008-2011 across racial and ethnic groups. The study also looked at the association between past year frequency of both, heroin-related risk behaviors and exposure to heroin availability. For those who had confirmed using heroin in the past, participants were also asked how they administered the drug.

Between 2008-2011, heroin use increased for all races and ethnicities. The largest group being non-Hispanic Caucasians. “We found that individuals endorsing past year non-prescription opioids who also use heroin are likely to be in more advanced stages of their drug use,” said Martins. “The individuals tend to use prescription opioids as a substitute for heroin when heroin is unavailable, to augment a heroin-induced ‘high,’ to ‘treat’ withdrawal symptoms, and to curb heroin use.”

The study confirmed much of what I have encountered over the past year. Most of the individuals I talk to fit into the non-Hispanic Caucasian category and the majority of those are now using heroin with a past use of prescription painkillers. This trend is popular due to the increase in black-market price of painkillers and the lowered availability since so many avenues of obtaining the medications illegally have been shut down.

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