The Dramatic Resurgence of Heroin, and the Surprising Demographic
Peter Shumlin, governor of Vermont, moved heroin addiction to the front burner of national news by devoting his entire State of the State address to his state’s dramatic increase in heroin abuse. Shumlin described the situation as an “epidemic,” with heroin abuse increasing 770 percent in Vermont since 2000.
The reason may come down to basic economics: illegally obtained prescription pain killers have become more expensive and harder to find, while the price and difficulty in obtaining heroin have decreased. An 80 mg OxyContin pill runs between $60 to $100 on the street. Heroin costs about $9 a dose. Even among heavy heroin abusers, a day’s worth of the drug is cheaper than a couple hits of Oxy.
“Kids in the city know not to touch it, but the message never got out to the suburbs,” said Chicago Police Capt. John Roberts, whose son died of a heroin overdose. He founded the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization to help other families deal with teen heroin use.
In 2009, the most recent year for which national data is available, 510 young adults, ages 15 to 24, died of a heroin overdose, up from 198 in 1999. Almost 90 percent of teens who are addicted to heroin are white.
The Connection between Heroin and Painkillers
Opioid pharmaceuticals are derived from opium; these include morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone. Heroin is also an opioid and as such has the same reaction in the brain-
when they attach to the brain’s opiate receptor, they all cause a very similar effect.
They give “both a positive reinforcement — the effect when you take the drug — but also very strong negative reinforcer, which is that you’ll feel very sick when you don’t have the drug, those two factors together make opioids extremely addictive.”
The number of people reporting heroin use in the previous year increased between 2007 and 2012, from 373,000 to 669,000. Meanwhile, federal data from 2011 finds that nearly 80 percent of people who had used heroin in the past year had also previously abused prescription painkillers classified as opioids (also referred to as OPRs).
The death rate from heroin overdose doubled in the 28 states from 2010 to 2012, increasing the number of deaths from 1,779 to 3,635. Comparing the same years, the death rate from OPR (Opiate Pain Reliever) overdose declined from 10,427 to 9,869 deaths. The overall drug overdose death rate increased 4.3%, from 13.0 to 13.6. Heroin death rates increased after 2010 in every subgroup examined. Heroin death rates doubled for males and females, whereas OPR death rates declined 12.4% in males and were unchanged in females. Heroin death rates increased for all age groups, whereas OPR death rates declined for age groups under 45 years old, yet increased for persons aged 55–64 years.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Vermont’s median household income, home ownership rate, and percentage of people with graduate and professional degrees are all higher than the national averages, and Vermont’s percentage of those living at or below poverty level is significantly lower than the national average.