Opiate Epidemic: Not Just Prescription Painkillers to Heroin?
The leading theory about the current heroin epidemic poses that it’s really the crackdown on prescription painkillers to blame. Between 2007-2014, heroin users have increased nearly three-fold. As a result, overdose deaths also increased to nearly 11,000 per year. So what is actually causing the current opiate epidemic? It’s more likely a variety of factors, some say.
The obvious answer is that the common link between the opiate-based painkillers and heroin is well, the “opiate” factor. In the past, heroin users tended to switch to prescription narcotics, but it seems that trend has now reversed. In recent years, heroin has become progressively cheaper and easier to allocate than prescription medicines. Patients are prescribed painkillers for an injury, and then they get addicted. When they can’t get Vicodin or Oxycontin anymore, they look elsewhere. Or at least that’s the prevailing theory.
The Changing World of Opiate Drugs
The opiate epidemic is also changing in terms of demographics. For example, more women and more socioeconomically privileged people are using heroin than in the past. It’s entering the suburbs at a much higher rate than the inner cities.
But heroin use has grown along side of medical opiate use and abuse. In fact, there were almost twice as many overdose deaths from painkillers as heroin in 2014. As a result, states are implementing tougher restrictions on prescribing practices, and some drugs are being reformulated to reduce the high, and therefore, make them less addictive.
The New England Journal of Medicine published an article recently that claims that soaring heroin use rates began before U.S. states began placing restrictions on opiate painkillers. Another point of dissension is that demand creates supply. Thus, limiting the supply of prescription narcotics doesn’t necessarily mean the demand will decrease. And in fact, that is not how the history of substance abuse has typically operated.
According to the article, another factor is an increased amount of heroin entering the country. In addition, purer heroin allows for easier snorting. This means that more people are apt to try it, as opposed to those repulsed by the idea of injecting.
The middle of the road consensus looks a little like this: there needs to be a balance. Ultimately, one of the problems is that painkillers should be available for those who really need them, and cracking down on prescriptions isn’t always the answer. As a society, we don’t want people turning to heroin to self-medicate any more than we want people to become addicted to opiates.