Heroin is an opioid drug similar to morphine. It came into use in 1868 when it was commercially distributed by the Bayer Pharmaceutical Company. Since then it has been an agent for addiction and the decay of millions of people and their families. Now that the drug is illegal, it is sourced primarily from Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, Latin America, and Mexico. Over time, trends in heroin use and abuse have been rising.
The last major epidemic of heroin use was in the late 1960’s when U.S. enlisted men fighting in Vietnam became addicted to the drug. There has been speculation, fueled by the 1990 movie, Air America, that the CIA was involved in the heroin trade in Southeast Asia. Though the CIA continues to refute these claims, there is a body of journalistic literature devoted to exposing an alleged heroin-CIA link.
Nowadays, heroin use trends have been rising strongly in suburban communities across the U.S. A 2009 study showed a rise in first-time use of the substance, which is either snorted, smoked, or injected. Typically seen as an urban drug, its low price relative to oxycontin makes it an attractive choice for pharmceutical drug addicts who need to support their habit. Where a single pill of pharmaceutical-grade opiate medication can cost up to $100 per pill, a multiple-day supply of heroin can cost as little as $45.
Since heroin strength and purity is constantly fluctuating, user experiences can vary widely from batch to batch. Heroin is often affiliated with overdose due to this fluctuation in purity and strength. Whole batches may even become tainted when mixed with other substances. Often batches can include a percentage of amphetamine which can help keep users alert during their high. This paves the way for cross-addiction, multiplying the problems addicts face.
Data show that opioid analgesics such as oxycodone and hydrocodone present a far greater risk of overdose. In 2007, pharmaceutical-grade opioids accounted for over 10,000 overdose deaths while heroin only accounted for around 2,000 deaths.
Since 2007 use has been on the rise, afflicting new markets such as rural Vermont, where traffickers are finding new customers along the I-91 corridor which is used to smuggle the substance from New York City up to Montreal, Canada. Vermont has seen overdose deaths increase from less than ten in ’09 to 17 in ’13.
Use among persons aged 12 and over has seen a dramatic increase since 2007. Past-month use increased from 161,000 users to 335,000 in 2012. Past-year use increased from 373,000 to 669,000 in the same time period.
Perhaps more disturbing than overdose is the spread of disease via tainted needles. Blood-bourne illnesses such as HIV and Hepatitis are known to spread when addicts share needles. In many areas, needle exchanges are made illegal by those who fear that the needles themselves spread and facilitate addiction.
Heroin use is is a rising trend across the United States. It is spreading into suburban areas and devastating small communities which have not previously been touched with the problem. States such as Minnesota and Vermont are now having to discover new public health and law enforcement approaches to addressing the problem.
By Hobie Anthony