The Face of Heroin Abuse in America

By: Marcos Lebron 

Baby born addicted to opiates every 19 minutes

The face of heroin abuse in America is changing and now leaders and the media are paying attention! Why? Because its affecting the white and affluent communities the most.

The number of opiate-related deaths in Erie County last year broke the 200 mark and is expected to more than double from the previous year, once all of the fatalities are confirmed.

Methadone treatment, such as those provided at Hispanic United of Buffalo could be adding to the deaths. Since Methadone just replaces one drug with another and keeps addicts addicted and looking for a bigger high.

A disproportionate number, 174, were white. Black overdose fatalities numbered 14; Hispanic, 10.

A disproportionate number, 90, were Buffalo residents. Suburban residents accounted for 80 of the dead, while 17 lived in rural communities and the remainders were homeless or lived outside the county.

Fatal heroin overdoses in the greater Rochester region surged 60 percent in 2015 over the previous year, with the last three months of the year proving the deadliest, according to new statistics released Friday by the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office.

The office recorded a total of 146 accidental deaths from heroin last year, with half of them taking place in October, November and December. The deadliest month was October, which saw 41 fatal overdoses.

In the city of Jamestown and Dunkirk, heroin-related arrests have tripled over the last three years, and last year, more deaths there were linked to heroin than any other drug. In addition, Schumer said the Jamestown Police Department estimated that approximately 90 percent of crime in the city is drug-related.

Baby born addicted to opiates every 19 minutes

The heroin and prescription painkiller epidemic is reaching all ages, including newborns.

The number of babies exposed to opiates while in the mother’s womb jumped from about 5,000 cases in 2003 to 27,000 cases in 2013. That number is expected to have gone much higher in 2014 and 2015.

Back in the 1960s, heroin users were usually young minority men, who started using around an average age of 16. They were most likely from low-income neighborhoods, and when they turned to opiates, heroin was their first choice.

Now, more than 50 years later, a study from JAMA paints a very different picture.

Today’s typical heroin addict starts using at 23, is more likely to live in the affluent suburbs and was likely unwittingly led to heroin through painkillers prescribed by his or her doctor.

While heroin is illicit and opioid pills such as oxycontin are FDA-approved, each is derived from the poppy plant. Their chemical structures are highly similar and they bind to the same group of receptors in the brain. (A few opioids, like fentanyl, are totally synthetic but designed to bind with those same receptors).

In any case, the various drugs produce the same result: an increase in pain tolerance and a sense of euphoria, along with drowsiness, occasional nausea and, at higher doses, a slowing of the user’s breathing.

All these drugs trigger “tolerance” — the need to take higher doses for the same effect — and a craving for the drug in its absence.

It is precisely because there are so many similarities those pain pills addicts frequently turn to heroin when pills are no longer available to them.

Heroin is usually cheaper than prescription drugs. Opiate pain medications cost the uninsured about $1 per milligram; so a 60-milligram pill will cost $60. You can obtain the equivalent amount of heroin for about one-tenth the price.

This may be news to you, but it’s likely not to some of your neighbors, friends and family members.

Over the last year, treatment providers in Buffalo, Rochester and Dunkirk spent time trying to better understand the patients who were coming into detox or methadone treatment for heroin. What they found were teachers, pregnant women, cops, lawyers, nurses and ministers who came from some of the best neighborhoods in the area and are mostly white.

Most of them shared a common story: “We used to take pills, but now we inject heroin or take methadone”.

80% of the world’s pain pills are consumed in the United States, which has just 5% of the world’s population.

As a result, accidental prescription drug overdose is now the leading cause of acute preventable death for Americans. Someone dies in this manner every 19 minutes. That is more deaths than from car accidents.

The response to these tragic statistics has been gratifying and effective, but somewhat shortsighted.

Doctors have been less willing to prescribe medications, especially in states like New York, formerly known for its pill mills, where tighter restrictions on prescribers led to a 23% drop in overdose deaths between 2010 and 2012.

The drugs themselves have been tweaked as well. In August 2010, an abuse deterrent version of Oxycontin was released to great fanfare. It was reformulated so it could not as easily be crushed or solubilized so abusers would have a difficult time injecting or snorting it. Within two years, the choice of oxycontin as a drug of abuse went from 35.6% to 12.8%.

That was the good news. The bad news is that the same study showed heroin use nearly doubled.

It became apparent that drug abusers weren’t going to stop as a result of government crackdowns or new technologies. They were simply morphing into people who abused other drugs.

Oxycontin used to be called the hillbilly heroin. Society and technology helped fix that problem. But addicts started turning back to real heroin instead.

A spokeswoman with the National Institute on Drug Abuse told us recently that nearly half of young people who inject heroin say they abused prescription opioids before turning to the illegal drug.

The headlines are horrifying and for good reason. The abuse of opiate pills and heroin are both taking a tremendous toll on the United States.

They are leading to increased crime, decreased productivity and they’re stealing the lives of too many people. While it is nearly impossible to pit one evil against another, it is important to remember that heroin, as a street drug, is unregulated, often impure and usually injected.

As a result, heroin users suffer from collapsed veins, abscesses, infections of the heart lining and valves, and rheumatological diseases. From sharing needles, they are more likely to suffer from HIV, Hepatitis and other blood diseases.

And just like their pill popping counterparts, they die of overdose in shocking numbers.

Some countries are more willing than the United States to pursue a strategy of harm reduction — that is, to steer addicts away from the most dangerous types of behavior. A number of countries have implemented programs that actually provide heroin to addicts; some studies (PDF) show that doing so improves addicts’ health and reduces their use of other illicit drugs.

Marijuana laws may reduce painkiller deaths

Yet in general, the U.S. strategy has not been harm reduction, but to target users and doctors.

While all of this was unexpected, it was likely also predictable. Medication or drugs aren’t the problem; it’s the intrinsic behavior of human beings. We don’t need to treat the drugs we are taking; we need to treat the drug addiction we are suffering.

Like the people who take the pills in the first place, society wanted a quick fix. Instead of treating the core cause of drug addiction, we implemented blanket policies to restrict the medications, alter them and place them increasingly out of reach. Yet human beings are smart, and it was easy to reach for something on a lower shelf, more easily accessible.

Make no mistake, the crackdown on opiates was a good thing, but there have been unintended consequences.

On one side, patients with legitimate pain have been caught in the crossfire, easily dismissed as malingerers and unable to get relief. On the other side, abusers have become more creative, turning to heroin to feed their addiction.

We must work to make sure treatment for drug addiction is a pillar of drug policy in the United States. We already know that it can work at levels similar to the effects of treatment of other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension and asthma.

Panorama Hispano is the regional news and information newspaper for Hispanic and other diverse communities.

US Hispanics are now the largest ethnic minority in the United States numbering 54.2 million as of July 2014. Serving: Buffalo, Rochester, Fredonia, Niagara Falls, NY and Erie, PA. Outside our Market area: Visit our affiliate at:

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