In the last few years,prescription pain medication has received a lot of attention due to the high abuse and addiction rates associated with them. As a result, opiate based pain pills have been much more heavily regulated by law enforcement and medical professionals in charge of prescribing them, restricting the availability of the drugs for those suffering from addiction.
Addiction is a very complex disease that is difficult to treat and restricting the supply of a drug does nothing to curb the demand. Opiate withdrawals, commonly referred to as “dope sickness”, are a brutal affair and those addicted to the substance will go to great lengths to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
The trend in recent years of pharmacy robberies demonstrates the desperation of opiate addiction in the face of the reduced availability of prescription painkillers.
Many more are turning to heroin to ease their suffering under this debilitating illness. In response, the amount of heroin seized by law enforcement has risen, as have heroin related arrests. The York City Police Department, in York, Pennsylvania, reported six major busts in the last 10 months, as opposed to a typical average of one or two annually.
In Maine, two people were arrested and charged with aggravated trafficking after 3 grams of heroin were found in their possession, along with a cutting agent and other opiate based drugs. Two more people, residents of New York, were arrested after they were determined to be the source of the heroin and another 21 grams was seized.
With this increase in heroin use comes an increase in overdoses, deaths and those who seek treatment. A treatment facility in Tampa reported that the rate of people using heroin as their main drug had nearly doubled, from 37 to 72 individuals, between 2010 and 2012.
This is only the tip of the iceberg.
What makes this problem disturbing is twofold. First, heroin is far less regulated in its production and is therefore far more dangerous to abuse than prescription pills. Secondly, a crackdown on drug supplies that does nothing to address the underlying illness does nothing to help solve the problem. In fact, it is making the problem worse as it is forcing people to do increasingly desperate and reckless things to try and find relief from their suffering.
A look at Russia’s problem with heroin use demonstrates the terrifying trajectories that addiction can take. Recently a Russian surgeon was arrested after stealing heroin he had just removed from a drug smuggler’s stomach in an attempt to save his life. The surgeon’s need was so great that it outweighed the potential consequences of being caught by law enforcement who were waiting to see if the smuggler would live.
What seems like a simple anecdote actually reveals a much larger picture. A surgeon is likely to be well educated with solid skills in risk assessment, skills that would be necessary when attempting to safely perform a surgery. Yet his were clearly drastically impaired and he now faces up to 15 years in prison as the result of his actions.
Many in Russia find it difficult to afford heroin and because of the continued demand, a new drug has emerged and spread throughout the country in the last eleven years. It is known as desomorphine, or “krokodil” and the damage it does to a person’s body is swift and horrifying. It is cheap and easy to make, more addictive than heroin and the withdrawal is far more severe. The ease of its production means that those who use it can cook it themselves.
Common medical problems associated with the drug include significant brain damage leading to impaired speech, cognitive ability and motor skills. It is most famously known for its tendency to rot the skin off of those who use it, causing gangrene or leaving exposed bone.
The life expectancy of a person using Krokodil is one to two years.
America has not seen the introduction of this drug but the destructive patterns are still very apparent. As the supply of drugs that are safer to use dry up, people who are still very ill and less capable of making decisions in their best interest turn to riskier behavior to try and help themselves.
And America has already seen a major trend in cook-at-home drug abuse in the form of meth.
If the problem with prescription pain pills was addressed by taking away the pills then the next logical step is to take away the heroin used to replace them. The increased heroin related activity of law enforcement shows that this shift in focus is already underway which begs the question: What are people who are suffering from addiction going to turn to in order to satisfy their demand?
What will the cost of the alternative that they settle upon be for society and loved ones who are still tremendously ill?