Fighting The Heroin Epidemic

You almost can’t turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper today without reading about the explosion of heroin addiction and overdose deaths in the USA.

In Ohio there are an average of 18 heroin overdose deaths every week.  Heroin use affects urban and suburban areas, rural areas, people of all socioeconomic statuses, teenagers to older people.  There is no one who is immune.

As the mother of a young teenager I am terrified.

How does a heroin addict get hooked?  Usually they start with prescription narcotic pain medications.  When I was in medical school they taught us that patients with “real” pain don’t get hooked on narcotics, don’t become addicts.  We were encouraged to believe our patients’ reports of pain, if they had a physical reason to be in pain, and treat them with whatever they needed to control the pain.

That is completely false.  People with real pain DO get hooked on narcotics.  Just like a certain number of those who drink alcohol habitually will activate an addiction, a certain number of those who use narcotics for ANY reason will activate an addiction.

One of the hallmarks of dependence is a need for larger doses of medication to achieve the desired result.  Even non-addicts (called users or abusers) and those who use narcotics for physical pain will become dependent on narcotics after extended use and have withdrawal symptoms when the medication is stopped.

An addict, however, will engage in illegal and manipulative behavior to get more and more drugs.  Negative consequences like divorce, legal problems, loss of family support and relationships, homelessness and even near-death experiences often aren’t enough to convince the addict to stop using and to get help.

At some point the abuser or addict’s need for narcotics becomes so great they can’t obtain or can’t afford pills, so they switch to heroin, which is inexpensive and unfortunately very available.

Heroin is usually sold in Ohio as a white powder that can be snorted or smoked, but is usually dissolved and injected.  It is a sedative and in overdose causes the user to stop breathing.

There is now a medication called naloxone or Narcan that is available over the counter in Ohio.  Fire, police, EMT and other emergency responders in Ohio carry Narcan and are trained to administer it if they suspect there is an overdose.  It works very quickly to block the opiate receptors and essentially reverses the activity of the narcotic drug.

There is no one way to fight the heroin epidemic.  We have to decrease casual access to narcotic pain medication, and hopefully reduce the number of new cases of addiction caused by medical treatment.  In practice, that means that doctors are being asked not to prescribe narcotics for every cough and sprained ankle they see, and in cases where narcotics ARE necessary to limit the number of doses they prescribe.

We have to identify and shut down those who are selling prescription pain medicine and heroin and other opiates (like fentanyl, which is a very powerful narcotic that is now responsible for nearly as many overdoses as heroin).  One of the reasons heroin is such an epidemic now is because it is easy to find and inexpensive.

We have to expand access to treatment programs.  It is very difficult to find an spot in a treatment program for narcotic addiction.  Medications like methadone and Suboxone are available to reduce the effects of addiction and help transition addicts to living clean and sober.  It’s tough to get an appointment in a Suboxone or methadone clinic in a timely fashion, though.

I’m not sure how we keep our kids from experimenting with drugs, short of keeping them locked up day and night.  I would be a lot less frightened as a mother if I didn’t know so many teenage addicts with loving, supportive, “good” parents.  Suburban white teenage kids from good homes in nice neighborhoods are dying in Ohio of heroin and fentanyl overdoses every week.

If anybody out there has any good ideas about how to immunize our kids against drug abuse and addiction, I’d love to hear them.  Urban, suburban, rural, middle-income, rich and poor, single-parent and two-parent household, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, religious or not, we are all at risk.

QUESTION: Do you know anyone who has struggled with heroin use and/or addiction?


3 thoughts on “Fighting The Heroin Epidemic

  1. This terrifies me also for my children even though they are still very young I feel like by the time they are teenagers it is gonna be even worse !!!! I see pts that nearly died and still do drugs again which show how terrible an addiction it is . I talk to my children about how terrible drugs are and that you could die . Mostly I talk to my 9 year old son, my daughter is only 5 , but I guess she even heard things about drugs because when me and my son were talking one day she chimed in and said “Yeah drugs are a really bad idea . Other people around are gonna be doing it and you may think you want to too , but it is a bad idea !” I was in shock when she said that .!!! Well wish me luck !

  2. I can’t understand how so many are becoming addicted. I took pain pills for a very long time. They took the edge off my pain so I could work cook clean and live. I stopped with out a problem and I took them for years. Now I don’t take anything although I’m still in a lot of pain. Why didn’t I move on to heroin ??? What is different in my brain or body chemistry ???

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