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Heroin’s Role in the Opioid Crisis

Heroin’s Role in the Opioid Crisis

by Elliott Redwine

Heroin’s Role in the Opioid Epidemic

The daily death toll due to opioids continues rising every year. As of 2017, at least 115 people die every day due to an opioid overdose. People severely underestimate the amount they can handle and miss the mark. The effects of opioids take hold quickly and the results can end up devastating.

Prescription opioids started making waves when overdose rates saw their first increase in the early 2000s. The numbers only shot up from there. Between 2002 and 2017, the number of overdose deaths nationwide increased more than 4 times over. 49,068 people died of an opioid-related cause in 2017 according to the most recent data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other agencies started pushing back against prescription opioid manufacturers in the late 2000s. As more and more regulations and restrictions for controlled prescription drugs got more stringent, street drugs stepped in to take their place. 

Heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, are largely to blame for the current overdose rates. Fentanyl is now mixed into every type of “stamped” or “illegal” drugs such as benzos and even uppers.

Prescription Opioids by the Numbers

Despite assurance from prescription painkiller manufacturers early on, people quickly learned how addictive their medications truly were. Between 21 and 29 percent of those prescribed an opioid medication misuse it in some way. 8 to 12 percent of them develop a substance use disorder and find themselves addicted to their medication.

The FDA and DEA placed restrictions on doctors who over-prescribed painkillers. Their restrictions quickly limited the supply of opioids to those with a worsening addiction. After having a relatively unrestricted access to medication, they found themselves at a loss. They were left with a choice: get clean or find an alternative.

Heroin Takes the Stage

Heroin is a street drug with a chemical structure similar to prescription painkillers. It provides the same effects, often to a greater degree, at a fraction of the price. When administrations cut down access to painkillers, some found themselves unable to access these drugs, which then started to make them dope sick. Many clients didn’t even realize that this was the problem. Once patients realize they need more drugs to feel better, doctor shopping used to be the number one fix. Those who could no longer find prescription opioids switched to illegal alternatives.

Not everyone with a painkiller addiction jumps from pills to street drugs. Still, while 21 to 29 percent misuse their meds, 4 to 6 percent of them transition from painkillers to heroin. If this statistic doesn’t shock you, consider the opposite side of the equation: roughly 80 percent of heroin users first started with prescription opioids.

The popularity of heroin rose in 2010 and the number of deaths reflected that fact. While the number of prescription opioid overdoses rose steadily, heroin overdoses shot up significantly. In 2017 alone, heroin claimed the lives of 15,958 people in the United States. In addition, in 2014 we saw the use of fentanyl mixed into the heroin making it a lethal combination even for the most seasoned addicts.

Magnifying the Risk Factor

Prescription drugs come with a significant risk of addiction and overdose. Still, pills acquired legally went through a quality control process. This ensured consistency between every pill your doctor prescribes.

Street drugs like heroin aren’t run through any type of quality control process. The batch you pick up today could be much stronger than the one you picked up yesterday. This inconsistency between pickups leads to an alarming number of accidental overdoses.

Then fentanyl made its way into batches of heroin starting around 2014, the risk of overdose skyrocketed. Fentanyl is a drug 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and dealers cut it into batches of heroin to increase the potency and decrease the price.

Fentanyl and fentanyl-laced drugs caused nearly twice as many deaths, claiming 29,406 lives in 2017. If it follows the trend set over the past three years, it shows no signs of stopping.

Pushing Back Against the Opioid Crisis

As the epidemic progresses, the United States is unlikely to see these numbers drop any time soon. Still, the FDA, DEA, and other organizations continue adjusting their approach to fight back against the impact of opioids.

The most recent attempt at a new approach comes out of Snohomish County in Washington state. They made the decision to treat the opioid epidemic like a natural disaster, combining the efforts of various public services.

Will their new tactic prove effective? If Snohomish sees a decrease in the rates of use and overdose in their county, they may pave the way for a new way of approaching the opioid epidemic.