Spike In Heroin Use Can Be Traced To Prescription Pads | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

Spike In Heroin Use Can Be Traced To Prescription Pads

Play associated audio

The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has brought attention to a grim reality of drug abuse in America — most notably with the increasing use of heroin.

Hoffman was found dead in his apartment on Sunday, and New York police are investigating his death as a possible drug overdose. Hoffman struggled with drug addiction throughout his career.

This is not the first time heroin use has skyrocketed in the United States. In the 1970s and '80s, the drug took hold in urban centers. But now officials say it is reaching the country's heartland, flooding across the southwest border from Mexico.

"You didn't usually think of heroin as suburbia, as rural America, and that's what we're seeing," says Joseph Moses, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The result, however, is the same.

"If you look at just the raw statistics," he says, "over the last four or five years, heroin deaths went up 45 percent."

Experts say the problem can be traced back to the aggressive prescribing of opioid drugs for pain about 15 years ago. OxyContin and Percocet are two popular, legal opioid drugs. Heroin is also an opioid drug; it's the illegal cousin. They are all made from the poppy plant, and they are all addictive.

When you talk to people who use heroin today, almost all of them will tell you that their opioid addiction began with exposure to painkillers, says Dr. Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer for the Phoenix House Foundation and president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing.

"The main reason they switched to heroin is because heroin is either easier to access or less expensive than buying painkillers on the black market," he says.

Kolodny says the statistics are stark. Areas with the highest rates of opioid or heroin addiction are often wealthier areas, where people have more access to medical care. With medical care comes access to doctors — doctors who could write prescriptions.

"Often [it was] a doctor who meant well," Kolodny says, "not a doctor who was a drug dealer, but a doctor who may have been under the impression that the compassionate way to treat a complaint of pain was with an aggressive opioid prescription."

Over time, however, it became harder to get opioids. As patients became addicted, doctors began cutting back their prescriptions, drug companies agreed to make the pills less snortable, and states created registries of patients who doctor-shopped for prescriptions.

Experts say that's when heroin suppliers stepped in to fill the void.

Kolodny says to get the heroin epidemic under control, doctors and dentists have to prescribe opioids more cautiously. And the hundreds of thousands of people already addicted to heroin — and prescription painkillers — need to find treatment.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

WAMU 88.5

A Conversation With American Ballet Theatre's Misty Copeland (Rebroadcast)

Acclaimed ballerina Misty Copeland joined Diane to talk about her remarkable career and how she is challenging physical stereotypes that she says keep ballet stuck in the past.

NPR

Why The World Might Be Running Out Of Cocoa Farmers

West African cocoa farmers earn less than $1 a day. Those low wages could jeopardize the future of chocolate labor, as young farmers find better opportunities to earn a living, a new report warns.
WAMU 88.5

Danielle Allen: "Our Declaration" (Rebroadcast)

For the Fourth of July: A fresh reading of the Declaration of Independence, and how ideas of freedom and equality have been interpreted over the years.

NPR

Pilot In Solar-Powered Plane Sets Aviation Record

André Borschberg, flying Solar Impulse 2, set a new record of 120 hours in the cockpit on a journey from Japan to Hawaii.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.