Understanding America’s heroin epidemic

Thursday, April 14, 2016 | By JP Emerald Coast

When over 517,000 million people in the general population suffer from a disease that spreads like wildfire among the community and can affect anyone, you have an epidemic. That figure reflects heroin addiction in America. Today, 517,000 Americans are addicted to heroin. The heroin epidemic reaches all ages, all races and all aspects of society.


With Mexican drug cartels exploiting the middle-class American consumer market and reaching into affluent suburbs to peddle their product, no one is immune to the heroin epidemic sweeping America. Yet where did this epidemic begin? More importantly, how can we end it?

The Heroin Epidemic: Facts and Figures

The following facts and figures come from the American Society of Addiction Medicine, a society of doctors dedicated to treating addiction and helping people in recovery.


The sad part about these statistics is that they probably don’t reflect the full picture of the heroin epidemic in America. Many more heroin addicts are hiding in plain sight, using at work or at school and continuing with the façade that everything is all right. The heroin epidemic in America is real and comes from a very unlikely source: the rise in prescription pain killer use.

The Rise of Heroin Use in America

Heroin belongs to a classification of drugs called opioids. Opioids work in two ways: They blunt the pain signals in the brain and alter the intensity of emotions occurring as a result of pain. In other words, when you take an opioid, pain signals are less strong so you aren’t in as much pain, and the remaining pain doesn’t upset you as much.

Opioid drugs are a blessing for many people, especially those with long-term, chronic pain such as cancer patients and people recovering from surgery, accidents, burns and other painful conditions.

In the 1980s, medical professionals began prescribing painkillers more frequently than ever before. The thought was that “getting ahead” of the pain or giving people plenty of painkillers after even minor surgery was kinder and better for patients than being stingy with prescription painkillers. Generic Vicodin came on the market in 1983, making it more affordable for patients to take prescription painkillers.

In 1991, approximately 76 million prescriptions for opioids such as hydrocodone, the generic name for Vicodin, were prescribed. In 2013, 207 million prescriptions for the same medication were written. It’s doubtful that over two and a half times as many people today are in pain than they were in 1991 or that there are more surgeries. The rise can be attributed to the ease with which patients can request and receive opioid prescriptions.

After Vicodin’s entrance into the market, newer and stronger opioid medications arrived, including Oxycodone. With each of these new drugs comes benefits and risks. The benefits to people in severe pain are great. The risks, however, are equally as great.

Prescription painkillers affect the same areas of the brain as morphine and heroin. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that because these medications affect the same areas of the brain, abuse of prescription painkillers predisposes people to abuse morphine or heroin.

Prescription Painkillers: Gateway Drugs

It’s one thing to read stern warnings from governmental agencies and quite another to hear the heartbreaking testimony of actual people addicted to heroin. Such testimony, however, puts a face on the heroin epidemic and makes the connection between prescription drug abuse and heroin all too clear.


Take the case of Robby Brandt, whose story was shared on CBS News. He was a high school student who, like many other teens, had his wisdom teeth removed. Robby’s oral surgeon prescribed pain pills after the surgery. Soon, the athlete and National Guard hopeful was hooked on prescription pain killers. The dealer who sold him the prescription pain medications sold him heroin, and Robby eventually overdosed and died from it.

Others share similar tales. Tyler Campbell, also featured on CBS News, was a star on his high school football team. He took prescription pain medication after shoulder surgery. He became hooked on Vicodin and eventually turned to heroin for the same high. He overdosed in 2011. What’s even more disturbing is that another member of Tyler’s football team also overdosed on heroin just a few months later.

The Economics of Addiction

How did something as beneficial as hydrocodone (Vicodin) became so problematic? The root lies in a peculiar blend of medical benefits, time-pressed doctors and savvy prescription marketing by the drug companies.

When Vicodin was introduced as a brand-name drug in 1978 and became a generic drug in 1983, it was a Schedule III opioid. Such medicines can be refilled by a doctor’s office over the phone to the pharmacist. This makes it appealing for doctors to prescribe and for patients to take — it’s easy for both to refill if the need arises.

Doctors don’t even need to see their patients again if they complain of additional pain. They can just call in a refill. Such convenience led to more people taking hydrocodone and more doctors prescribing it. It was easy, convenient and simple.

How Heroin Became Popular

The heroin epidemic in America coincides with the rise of prescription opioid abuse as well as two other changes: the changing marketing strategy of the Mexican drug cartels and the ease of communications in the digital age.

The Mexican drug cartels run products from Mexico, our neighbor to the south, up into the heartland of America. Heroin can be inexpensively mixed with other substances to cut or stretch it out. The profit margins are great, which lead the drug cartels to seek a new and eager market. They found such a market among the teens in the heartland of America.

Like any business, drug cartels only make money when they can expand the market for their products. Heroin used to be a hidden drug, the kind of drug that only “hard-core” addicts used. Now, with the rise of prescription opioid use and abuse, dealers found a ready and eager market for heroin. While they may not have easily found teens who would experiment with heroin years ago, now they had teens needing a stronger, affordable high. Heroin was their answer.

It seems unlikely that high school students would have access to heroin, but that’s where digital communications comes into play. A quick text to a dealer, and a drug drop-off can be left within minutes. Users no longer have to leave their house and scout out a dealer in a dangerous place. Now they can put in their order from the convenience of their bedroom, living room or kitchen.

Signs of Heroin Addiction

Some parents lament the fact that they didn’t recognize the signs of heroin addiction. Many blame themselves, but heroin addiction can be easy to miss if you’re not aware of the specific signs.

Heroin is smoked, snorted or injected. Each of these methods leaves behind telltale signs including:

  • Drug paraphernalia: syringes, glass bottles or rubber tubing used to shoot heroin
  • Dirty spoons, which may be a sign that the drug was diluted


Someone using heroin may show the following symptoms:

  • Sleepiness
  • Constricted pupils
  • Chronic dry mouth
  • Runny nose
  • Red eyes
  • Flushed skin


People who take heroin frequently may suffer from constipation, so an unexplained use in laxatives can also be a sign of heroin use when taken into account with other signs and symptoms. Nausea, vomiting and shakiness may also occur.

Chronic heroin users have a high tolerance for pain and may have unexplained burns, cuts or bruises that don’t seem to trouble them at all. They may also have infections that don’t clear up because their immune systems are compromised.

Breathing slows down when heroin is used, and that’s how heroin kills: It slows breathing to the point where the person stops breathing altogether.

Heroin in the Heartland

Many people think that heroin remains a problem only in the inner cities. They picture the streets of Los Angeles, Detroit, New York or Baltimore. But the biggest increased in overdoses, deaths and addiction statistics are occurring where you might least expect it: Ohio, Vermont and other states where big-city living is the exception rather than the rule.


One problem that teens in these areas have always struggled with is boredom. Teens always seem to be bored, but it can be worse in the mountains of Vermont or the cornfields of Kansas. These teens begin experimenting with prescription opioids, and when the FDA and the state cracks down on the availability of such drugs, teens turn to heroin as a cheaper and more readily available drug.


In an exposé in Rolling Stone, for example, a young woman from Vermont named Eve is profiled as one such teen. Starting with her grandfather’s painkiller prescription, she eventually escalated to a $300-a-day heroin habit that led to living on the streets.

When Eve finally looked for help, she found a waiting list at most recovery centers that hovered around 500 people on the list ahead of her. Like other places in the United States, Vermont is struggling with the sudden increase in people seeking help for drug abuse.

Problems Treating the Heroin Epidemic

Eve isn’t alone. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, waiting lists are a definite barrier to recovery for many people. Even when clinics are proposed in places such as Vermont, protestors mistakenly think that offering Methadone or other treatment drugs for heroin abusers will cause a rise in local drug use rather than a decrease.

Drug users also face an additional hurdle: the stigma of being labeled a drug addict. Even more so than people with mental health issues, people seeking treatment for drug use often find that their needs aren’t taken seriously. Insurance companies underfund treatment or deny coverage for drug abuse treatment even though it is a recognizable disease with treatable symptoms.

A Multifaceted Problem Requires Several Solutions

The heroin epidemic in America is a multi-faceted problem, and like any complex problem, it needs a carefully considered and complex solution.


While government regulators hoped that by changing the FDA classification of prescription drugs such as Vicodin they could limit its use and abuse, making it hard to obtain legally only pushed current users over to abusing heroin. Doctors, dentists and other healthcare professionals must do a better job of screening patients for chronic or severe pain and offering fewer opioid painkiller options.

Teens should be taught that even prescription medicines can be dangerous if taken recklessly. Taking prescription medicines recreationally can be the start of a long road down into addiction.

Everyone should know the dangers of taking opioid medications and understand the warning signs of addiction. Finding more effective, less drug-dependent ways of managing chronic pain should also be the primary consideration of new research into pain management.

Lastly, more funding, resources and professional help must be available for anyone suffering from an addiction. While 12-step groups have a place in the recovery movement, many drugs, including heroin, can’t be safely quit “cold turkey.” Supervised withdrawal must occur in a professional setting in order for patients to safely stop taking heroin, opioids and other painkillers.

Recovering From Heroin Abuse at JourneyPure Emerald Cost

JourneyPure Emerald Coast offers residential treatment for all kinds of drug addiction, including heroin, prescription painkillers and other drugs. If you’re ready to quit using heroin, we’re ready to help.

At JourneyPure Emerald Coast, we offer a structured setting to get well. Medical staff is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week if you need them, as well as other staff members if you just need someone to talk to.

When you call us, we’ll make arrangements for you to enter into treatment here in our Florida facility. Clients receive personalized attention and treatment. This includes detoxing from heroin or other drugs, attending counseling sessions, participating in group and recovery group meetings and more.

There’s no set timeframe for your stay with us. We know that some people need more and some people need less time in treatment. We offer clients a flexible schedule that works with their life and needs. You can stay with us for 30 days, 60 days or any other timeframe you need in order to get well.

We also encourage clients to get out and enjoy life even during recovery. So you can go to work, attend school or travel to nearby stores and other places if you want to. You’re not locked in. You’re here because you want to be here, and we’re here to help.

JourneyPure Emerald Coast can help you learn how to live life on life’s terms. Through a structured schedule, time in counseling and time for reflection, you’ll start your recovery with a great team behind you.


To get help for your heroin addiction or to get help for a loved one, call JourneyPure Emerald Coast today. Call (615) 907-5928 today to speak with an admissions counselor.

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