The opiate epidemic has been growing at a rapid rate and researchers are scrambling to understand why so many people are turning to highly addictive drugs such as heroin in the first place. Using a group of high school students for research, one group of scientists have examined the potential of a correlation between the abuse of prescription painkillers and heroin use.
There has been a rapid increase in overdose deaths from opiates across the United States. In 2013, there were over 16,000 deaths which are an increase of over three hundred percent since 1999. The increase over fourteen years is phenomenal, but the year by year increase is staggering. Between 2012 and 2013 there was a 39% increase in heroin-related deaths, not counting other opiate-related deaths during that period of time.
While this connection has long been hypothesized, the correlation has never been proven. However, a study that was published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence showed a direct link between heroin and opiate abuse in high school students. This report, "Nonmedical Opioid Use and Heroin Use in a Nationally Representative Sample of Us High School Seniors", showed clear evidence that seventy-five percent of high schoolers who abuse prescription painkillers go on to experiment further with opiates such as heroin.
There are concerns that much of this is due to the distrust that many teens feel towards drug education that they receive in school, states Dr. Joseph J. Palamar. Palamar is an assistant professor of Population Health at NYU Langone Medical Center as well as an affiliate of the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research. He says that teens are frequently told that marijuana and heroin are equally dangerous. When they are exposed to marijuana for the first time, they develop a distrust for the source of such blatant misinformation.
"Teens are only told that drugs are bad and that they should avoid them. There is not enough information available to teens in school about why some people use and become addicted," he stated.
The study showed that nearly twenty-five percent of high school students who reported abusing prescription pain medication more than forty times continued on to become lifelong heroin users. Palamar attributes this to the complicated nature of opiates. "Most other drugs are illegal regardless of the context, but opioids are commonly offered by doctors and are in their parent’s medicine cupboard. Even if teenagers believed what they are being taught about illegal drugs in school why would they be worried about drugs from the pharmacy?"
Palamar says that many teens start out using prescription painkillers and say they will never use heroin. Then when the prescription runs out or it becomes too expensive, they say they'll snort the heroin but never shoot it. Next thing they know, they are injecting illegal opiates. Many teens who become addicted have no idea that most heroin addicts begin with prescription opiates.
There is a need to perform longitudinal studies to provide more information about opioid use leading to illegal drugs such as heroin. While this study shows that many teens have started their heroin addiction with opiate prescriptions, the data still needs more support.