Heroin’s Grip on the U.S.

The ongoing heroin epidemic in the U.S. has grown to the point where it is garnering coverage in other countries. A recent Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) feature profiled a suburban Maryland mom who was enjoying her first Mother’s Day in 10 years with her three children—the first in which she wasn’t high on heroin. Hooked at just 15, the mom in the ABC profile was 35 and just beginning to rebuild her life after spending nearly 20 years and what she estimates to be more than a million dollars on the drug.1

It’s a familiar story. She is one of countless Americans who have spent years battling an addiction and one of the fortunate ones who got help. Of course, as the experts will tell you, getting clean is just the beginning. Recovery will be a lifelong pursuit.

The ABCs of Heroin

Opium poppiesHeroin is an opioid drug that is synthesized from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of the Asian opium poppy plant. Heroin usually appears as a white or brown powder or as a black sticky substance, known as “black tar heroin.”2

In a U.S. survey of heroin use, 669,000 Americans 12 and older said they had used heroin in the last year. Of those mentioned, 156,000 used it for the first time—and exceptionally high percentage.3

Heroin is versatile. It can be injected, inhaled, snorted, sniffed or smoked. All of these administration routes deliver the drug to the brain very rapidly, contributing to its health risks and the high risk for addiction. When it enters the brain, heroin is converted back into morphine, which binds to molecules on cells known as opioid receptors, which are involved in the perception of pain and in reward.

After an intravenous injection of heroin, users report feeling a surge of euphoria accompanied by dry mouth, a warm flushing of the skin, heaviness of the extremities and clouded mental functioning, NIDA reports. Following this initial euphoria, the user goes “on the nod,” an alternately wakeful and drowsy state.2

Heroin abuse can lead to a number of serious health conditions including fatal overdose, spontaneous abortion, hepatitis and HIV. Chronic users may develop collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, constipation, gastrointestinal cramping, pulmonary complications and liver or kidney disease. Even for those who don’t experience any of those health issues, regular heroin use changes the functioning of the brain, leading to tolerance and dependence.

An Ongoing Epidemic

Once thought of as an urban problem, today, the drug has spread into the suburbs and rural areas. One of the biggest reasons for its rapid spread is the power of the prescription painkiller.

Patients continue to need stronger drugs and more often, and when their supply is cut off by doctors, they try to get their fix illegally. A crackdown on pill supply and unethical doctors prescribing to those without a legitimate medical need had an unexpected consequence. The price of a single 80 mg OxyContin pill spiked to between $60 and $100 on the black market. Meanwhile, a dose of heroin can be had for as little as $10. So, in effect, heroin can deliver the same high for a tenth of the price.

Old Drug, New Problems

Heroin continues to creep into the suburbs and small towns. What was once a drug characterized by older, urban users, is now primarily a white, middle-class drug. Asteens are notoriously fearless when it comes to substance use, underestimating the risks and overlooking the dangers, drug use may even be becoming more common than alcohol use among young people.

Recent research shows that driving while under the influence of drugs is becoming an increasingly dangerous problem. In a 2010 report from fatal car crashes, 47 percent of drivers who had drugs in their system were under the influence of prescription drugs—opioid pain killers being the most prevalent.4

Getting Help

A range of treatment options including behavioral therapies and medications are effective at helping patients stop using heroin and return to stable and productive lives. Heroin treatment is most effective and safe in a medically supervised, residential setting.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, call us today at our toll-free helpline. We’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can provide information on treatment programs, help with insurance and answer questions about the treatment process. Please call now.

1 Millar, Lisa, “US heroin epidemic: How deadly addiction got a foothold in America’s heartland.” Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2 July2014.

2Drug Facts: Heroin.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, January 2018.

3What is the scope of heroin use in the United States?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, January 2018.

4Drug Facts: Drugged Driving.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. June 2016.

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