The Heroin Epidemic in America: A “Public Health Crisis”

by Jeffrey Juergens | |  

Increased Heroin Use Causes Public Health Crisis

Blame it on a cultural shift. Blame it on government crackdown of prescription drugs. Whatever you blame it on, you can’t ignore it.

As with many drugs, heroin has long been demographically homogeneous. But a spike in supply coupled with a dip in cost has created a bubble of rising prominence, expanding the drug into corners of the population that never before would have been seen shooting up.

Dubbed a “public health crisis” by Attorney General Eric Holder, the increase in heroin consumption (and subsequent fatal overdoses) has legislators and prosecutors on both state and national levels scrambling for a solution.

“It’s clear that opiate addiction is an urgent — and growing — public health crisis,” Holder said in an article on CNN. “And that’s why Justice Department officials, including the (Drug Enforcement Administration), and other key federal, state, and local leaders, are fighting back aggressively.”

Though illicit drugs on a general level have long been a point of concern, the renewed vigilance in the battle on heroin stems from the amassing tragedies. Holder said that heroin overdoses increased by 45 percent between 2006 and 2010, stacking up senseless fatalities nationwide.

To illustrate the issue, the Justice Department said there was a 320% increase in heroin seized along the southwest border of the U.S. from 2008 through 2013. Anything officials are missing is ending up on U.S. soil at a higher rate than ever.

A Shift from Prescription Drugs to Heroin

Part of the appeal may be an unintended side effect of a federal dropkick on prescription drug abuse. As OxyContin (and other popular synthetic opioids) becomes less available due to tightened regulations and rising prices, heroin provides a comparable high at a lower price point.

Jack Riley, a special agent in charge of the DEA’s Chicago Field Division, noted in a TIME article that heroin is spreading into previously uncharted territory. As more of the drug is available, people are able to buy a cheaper and purer version of heroin. The purer the heroin, the more varied the options for administration. When heroin is cut with filler product, it has to be injected in order for the user to achieve the high; in a purer form, it can be smoked or snorted.

Including former prescription drug addicts or teenagers experimenting, non-injectable versions of heroin become more attractive to “people who normally wouldn’t come near it for fear of the needle,” Riley said. “That’s why it is spreading.”

The Legal Response to the Crisis

Legislators are looking for new ways to get the crisis under control. A special session in Kentucky was recently called to get their state’s abuse down. Maine is in the process of passing LD 1686, which allows for first responders (law enforcement officers and firefighters) to carry and administer Narcan. This opioid antagonist stops an overdose in its tracks, providing more time for medical attention to save the life of someone who has accidentally overdosed. Other versions of state bills call for stiffer penalties on convicted heroin traffickers.

The solution isn’t obvious and likely won’t be easy. But as officials look for new ways to both preemptively and punitively overcome the heroin epidemic on local and national levels, those who are struggling with an addiction can find hope right now through addiction treatment.

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