Many people believe that prescription medications belong to a unique and safe category of drugs. However, medications can strongly resemble illegal narcotics. For instance, an opioid is similar to heroin in its chemical composition and addictiveness. Also like heroin, such a medication can have devastatingly negative effects on a person’s body and life. It is for these reasons that we need to take an in-depth look at opioid and heroin abuse in America today.
What are Opioids?
The words opiate and opioid essentially mean the same thing. However, “opioid” is often used to designate the synthetic or semi-synthetic variety of prescription medications in the opiate class, also called painkillers, pain meds or analgesics.
Natural opiates come from the juice of opium poppy pods, and their synthetic counterparts are produced in labs. Either way, opioids provide pain relief by altering the nervous system’s functioning. Specifically, they adhere to opioid receptors, which are proteins located within the digestive tract, spinal cord, and brain. Upon attaching, they interfere with the pain transmissions that neurons send to the brain.
What’s more, opioids can induce the brain to produce highly pleasurable sensations, and they can make a person feel especially relaxed and comfortable. In short order, that individual will start to feel drowsy. The drugs depress (reduce strength or effectiveness of) the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), the respiratory system and indeed the whole body.
Examples of opioids that doctors widely prescribe are codeine and morphine. The latter is much more powerful; indeed, healthcare providers frequently administer morphine to patients before they have surgery and/or immediately afterwards. Further, a list of popular opioid drugs includes hydrocodone (Vicodin, Zohydro), oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), meperidine (Demerol), and hydromorphone (Dilaudid).
Heroin, which is made from morphine, is an opiate that produces a fast reaction within the body. Ironically, it was originally produced to help people eliminate morphine dependencies. On the street, heroin often comes in powder form. Black tar heroin, however, is a version of the drug that’s sticky and dark.
Painkillers & Heroin: Cousins in Crime
Heroin users will usually smoke, inject, or snort the drug a few times a day. Injection leads to the fastest and strongest sensation of euphoria. That feeling of being high results partly from the speed at which the substance rushes into the brain. This high is generally followed by several hours of grogginess, a period during which a person’s cardiovascular and respiratory systems can be dangerously impaired.
Moreover, heroin withdrawal can cause such adverse effects as vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, and insomnia. Ongoing heroin use, meanwhile, can lead to much graver health problems, including tuberculosis, heart disease, arthritis, depression, and kidney failure.
The chemical resemblance between prescription opioid painkillers and heroin has led to a major increase in heroin usage. Many people who take opioids become addicted to them. When their prescriptions run out, though, it’s difficult for them to obtain more of the medications that their minds and bodies crave.
Street distribution of painkillers has earned them a list of slang names such as:
- Oxy 80s, oxycotton, oxycet, hillbilly heroin, percs, perks, pain killer, vikes, hydros, pinks, footballs.
Heroin has had street names for the better part of a century including:
- Big H, boy, brown sugar, dope, H, hell dust, horse, junk, nose drops, skag, smack, thunder.
“Graduating” from Pain Pills to Heroin
One reason that opioid painkillers have become harder to acquire is that law enforcement officials have been shutting down clinics that provide these drugs to people without prescriptions. For example, in 2010, Florida was perhaps home to more disreputable clinics (“pill mills”) than any other state. But once Florida’s authorities started closing in on the offenders, medication abuse lessened statewide. In fact, the number of deadly prescription drug overdoses in Florida was 23 percent lower in 2012 than in 2010.
Also, many drug makers have begun altering their products to make them more difficult to misuse. For instance, in August 2010, a new variety of OxyContin premiered, one that’s extremely tough to dissolve and crush. In other cases, people simply find that their prescription drugs no longer give them the highs that they desire. Thus, they turn to heroin for those experiences.
What’s more, on the underground market, prescription painkillers have become exceedingly expensive; a single OxyContin pill can cost as much as $100. To save money, then, many people have turned to drug dealers ― or to friends and family members who can get their hands on narcotics ― to purchase heroin and feed their addictions.
The Rising Tide of Heroin in America
For these reasons, the sociological nature of heroin abuse has been changing. During the 1960s, people tended to start using heroin around the age of 16. For the most part, heroin users were young men who came from impoverished backgrounds. It was also a mostly urban problem. Now, this problem has spread to rural and suburban communities. For example, in Vermont, the rate of heroin usage in early 2014 was 770 percent greater than in 2000. In addition, the average age at which Americans begin using heroin has risen to 23.
Currently, 156,000 people per year try heroin for the first time. Ten years ago, that annual number was 90,000. In 2003, 119,000 Americans who were at least 12 years old used heroin on a routine basis. By 2011, that number had ballooned to 281,000. Consider as well that the number of heroin deaths in the U.S. in 2010 was 45 percent higher than in 2006. That number then doubled between 2010 and 2012.
Throughout the U.S., law enforcement officials and health care providers have been dealing with the repercussions of this new heroin problem. In March 2013, the Illinois State Crime Commission declared heroin use an epidemic. In Charlotte, N.C., where some drug dealers now make deliveries and offer discounts to well-educated young adults, medical centers have been seeing an influx of ministers, police officers, and other professionals with heroin-related problems.
The Time to Act is Now
Opiate abuse – illicit or Rx – carries the risk of respiratory depression (slowed or stopped breathing), overdose, coma, death, and a toll of human misery. When a person uses shared or dirty needles, he or she is at risk of acquiring HIV, hepatitis, and other serious diseases. When a drug dealer hands over a batch of heroin, there’s no way to know how strong that supply is. Prescription opioid abuse likewise exacts a heavy price from the user and the family, and as detailed above can lead to harder and harder drugs.
If you or someone you love has a problem with opioid or heroin abuse, contact one of our addiction specialists. We can help. But the time to act is now!