Heroin Epidemic Fueled By Lower Cost, Higher Potency

Photo courtesy of wstryder via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

Where and why are heroin crises occurring, and what are the consequences?

The lower cost and higher potency of modern heroin — an opioid drug derived from morphine — has made the drug more addictive, easier to purchase, and more dangerous, causing concern and crises in certain countries and U.S. states.

U.S. Statistics show rise in heroin usage, deaths

Research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that between 2002 and 2010, heroin usage grew by 50 percent in the U.S., from 400,000 to 600,000 users.

Similarly, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that the percentage of heroin usage in 2012 was nearly double what it was in 2002, despite the population increase.

In terms of deaths, the number of lives claimed almost doubled from 1,842 in 2000 to 3,036 in 2010, the Washington Post says.

These numbers, with good reason, have lead many to fear a heroin epidemic is at hand — especially in certain regions, where it’s been causing evident harm.

States facing heroin epidemic (are not where you’d expect)

Map courtesy of SAMHSA. (Colors represent percentages of persons addicted to all illicit drugs, heroin included)

Idyllic state Vermont is among, if not the highest in illicit drug usage, with 15 percent of people having admitted to using in the past month, according to the 2010-2011 National Survey of Drug Use and Health.

According to Vermont’s governor Peter Shumlin in his State of the State address, heroin abuse had increased by 770 percent there since the year 2000, with twice the number of deaths in 2013 than the year previous.

In addition, 80 percent of state prisoners are there on drug-related charges, according to the NY Times.

New York City, where esteemed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead by overdose in early 2014, has seen a spike in fatal heroin overdoses, with such deaths increasing by 76 percent since 2010 (541 drug deaths in 2010, 630 in 2011 and 730 in 2012, with the greatest amount in the Brooklyn borough).

Why has heroin use risen while other drug usage has fallen?

Though DEA reports have shown the price of pure heroin to be more expensive than gold in some regions, it’s cheaper, still, than prescription painkillers.

According to the LA Times, heroin has become more of a suburban and rural issue than an urban one, increasingly popular among the affluent.

The drop of illegally obtained opioids such as OxyContin relates inversely to the rise in heroin use, health officials say. According to the Washington Post, a packet of heroin might cost $10, as opposed to $80 for OxyContin.

When pharmacies realized misuse of OxyContin and made it more difficult to obtain and abuse, heroin became the cheapest available alternative for prescription drug addicts.

States like Vermont and New Hampshire are especially lucrative for dealers, who can make triple what they would in big cities like NYC, Philadelphia, or Boston. The areas’ higher incomes, liberal attitudes, weather and road accessibility may be contributing factors, as well.

Deadly combinations

Low cost coupled with higher potency has taken form in certain types of heroin laced with fentanyl (called “Bud Ice” “Theraflu” or “China White”), a drug half the price of heroin and 50 to 100 times stronger.

Hoffman was found with heroin branded “Ace of Spades” and “Ace of Hearts,” which officials are investigating the contents of. If fentanyl is found in Hoffman’s blood, there could be a case for homicide, Long Island Newsday reports.

So far, this often-fatal heroin combo has claimed 37 lives in MD since September, according to the Baltimore Sun, not to mention 22 deaths (in one week) last year in PA and a dozen more in RI last spring. It’s also been documented in New York, Ohio, and New Jersey.

Gov. Shumlin and others are advocating that addicts be treated as sick rather than as criminals, as funding for treatment is more cost-effective than incarceration – though still extremely expensive.

The rest of the world: How big is the problem, really?

Map courtesy of Business Insider using UN data.

The UN World Drug Report (pdf) states that about 27 million adults worldwide are drug-dependent, mainly on heroin and cocaine. That’s about 1/200 adults with drug addictions.

Afghanistan has the highest reported usage of opiates (along with being the world’s greatest producer), followed by Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Puerto Rico, as this map by the Guardian illustrates using UN data.

Russia in particular has been facing a growing epidemic of heroin usage coupled with an HIV/AIDS problem that has gone largely unchecked.

Clearly, Hoffman is far from alone, as is the United States in the far-too-often fatal issue of drug addiction.

If you or someone you know are experiencing problems with heroin, call 1-888-299-5213 now for addiction treatment options, or visit Recovery.org

Jennifer Markert