Out of control: America’s heroin epidemic

USA's heroin epidemic
Anne Farron* writes:

America is a country in the grips of a heroin epidemic. As of October 2015, there are now 36 states in America where more people lose their lives each year to overdose and other drug related deaths than in road traffic accidents.

Recent research from the Trust for America’s Health show two shocking statistics: first, that more than 2 million Americans currently abuse prescription drugs, and secondly, that the number of new heroin users has doubled over the past seven years.

These two statistics are related. Studies suggest that more than two thirds of current heroin users have abused prescription medications first. As legislation on prescription drug use, and prescription drug control, have both tightened, individuals who were abusing prescription medication found that the drugs they needed had more than doubled in price. Finding they couldn’t afford their habit, many of these users chose to turn to the much cheaper option of heroin instead. It is no coincidence that the rate of heroin users has increased at the same time as the rate of prescription drug abuse has decreased.

With the number of heroin users growing out of control, many states find themselves at a loss about what they can do to control the problem.

Are needle exchanges the answer?

For many, offering open needle exchange programmes in areas of high drug use is a practical solution to the number of drug deaths seen each year. For those supporters of needle exchange programmes, they offer a safe place to exchange needles, reduce the risk posed by law enforcement and the risk of innocent individuals being accidentally harmed by contaminated needles, and they provide free HIV testing and counselling.

Of course, needle exchange programmes, like all social issues, have their pros and cons, and for every supporter is an equally vocal opponent.

Despite its increasing and largely unchecked heroin problem, a considerable number of individuals in America are opposed to the concept of needle exchange programmes. Opponents of the schemes suggest that they promote drug use, make local residents feel unsafe by bringing drug users into their neighbourhood, and believe that the tax dollar used to pay for the schemes could be better spent elsewhere.

The fact is that having a local needle exchange programme will not provide a solution to a local heroin problem: while needle exchange programmes do offer support and direct their users to rehabilitation services and 12-step programmes when requested, their primary function is to enable heroin users to continue using the drug safely.

However, needle exchange programmes do play a key role in helping to reduce the numbers of heroin users sharing needles, and therefore contracting HIV and other blood disorders. This, in turn, can help reduce the number of heroin-related diseases we see in the United States each year.

A middle class problem

Our perception of heroin addicts tends to be an outdated one: the generalised view of a heroin addict is of a homeless and desperate down and out. This may well be true of the heroin addicts from the country’s first epidemic in the 1970s. However modern heroin addicts cut an entirely different figure.

Modern heroin addiction tends to be a middle class problem, affecting affluent individuals from the suburbs of the country’s cities who develop their addiction as a result of becoming addicted to prescription drugs, which were usually legally and legitimately obtained as the result of a minor accident or injury (sporting injuries seem to be a particularly common theme among young addicts, for example).

We live in a society where pain is not something to be endured: where every bump or ache can be solved with medication. However, the often overlooked dark side of this over prescription in order to line the pockets of physicians and large medical insurance companies is that those opiates that are often prescribed to relieve pain are highly addictive and contain many properties common with heroin.

Perhaps the first line of defence against the increasing heroin epidemic we are facing, then, needs to come from the medical industry which needs to change its attitude when it comes to the frequency with which these kinds of drugs are prescribed, often unnecessarily.

*Anne Farron is a freelance writer.

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