September 7, 2014
There is no denying that heroin is becoming a prevalent issue throughout the country. However, what might surprise some is that the face of the drug is changing. If you were to ask someone what a typical user would look like, chances are that you would hear a variation of the terms ‘inner-city’ and ‘low-income’.
However, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggests that this perception is wrong. In fact, the drug is becoming increasingly popular amongst affluent, suburban Caucasians.
There are several different signs that would highlight the fact that the drug is moving away from the inner city and moving towards rural areas and the suburbs. Peter Shumlin (D), the governor of Vermont, even devoted his entire state of the state address to the issue. Vermont is not one of the states that most people would necessarily associate with this dangerous narcotic.
The aforementioned study shows that unlike fifty years ago, the users are almost evenly male and female, live in nonurban areas, and are much older than before. Perhaps the most striking note about the study is that many of the users first started using after initially taking prescription opioids.
A recent analysis of patients in a treatment program that spanned 150 different privately and publically funded centers came up with the following information:
- In the 1960s, the majority of users were men. In fact, 82.8 percent of the people that actively abused the drug were men. Nowadays, those seeking treatment are an equal rate of male and female.
- The ethnicity of the people who are seeking treatment has shifted as well. In the 1960s, about 40 percent of those people who sought treatment were Caucasian. Nowadays, the percentage of people who seek drug treatment for this dangerous narcotic is 90.3 percent.
- In the 1960s, those who sought treatment had an average age of 16.5 years old. Nowadays, the average age for those people seeking treatment stands at 22.9 years old.
A Shift in the User
The study also showed that the reason that people turned to heroin in the first place has changed dramatically. When asked in the 1960s, more than 80 percent of the people surveyed responded that their opioid abuse began with heroin. However, this changed dramatically in the early 2000s. Around that time, more than 75 percent of all the people seeking treatment reported that before they ever used heroin, they had already been abusing a prescription opioid.
Amongst those who were surveyed who had heroin as their primary drug, 94 percent reported that they felt the narcotic was far easier to obtain and much cheaper as well. An overwhelming 98.1 percent of those surveyed said that they preferred the high that they got from heroin to prescription opioids.
According to the head researcher of the study, two other major factors (aside from access and cost) may explain the shifting demographics of heroin users. The first is that populations not previously exposed to the drug (women, middle-class, Caucasian males) were using and abusing opioid prescription drugs far more actively than before. The more people are exposed to something, the greater the chances that issues may develop.
The second factor is that prescription opioid abusers are widely accepting heroin as a quality replacement. Whereas the substance was previously considered ‘taboo’ because of its addictive potential, there is not a great deal of difference between the powerful painkilling effects of OxyContin and the drugs that someone is able to buy illegally.
Treatment Not Widely Available
A final issue is the fact that those people who need treatment are not getting it. In fact, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, only 10.8 percent of the people who needed drug or alcohol treatment actually go to a specialized facility with the expertise to handle their issues. This means that a large percentage of the people who need it are not getting or even seeking the help that they need to get better.
One of the benefits of the 2008 mental health parity law and Affordable Care Act is the fact that it expands substance abuse treatment coverage. It is one of the ten benefits of the Affordable Care Act that group health plans and individual health plans have to cover. Unfortunately, one of the new issues people have to contend with is the fact that there are not enough quality treatment options available.
Not an Isolated Incident
This is not to say that this is the only demographic that saw an increase in opiate abuse. In fact, all demographics saw an increase in the latest survey according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH),
A reported 669,000 Americans started using heroin in a recent year. This is up from an estimated 404,000 each year a decade ago. As it stands right now, 1.6 percent of Americans (4.2 million Americans ages 12 or older) have abused the narcotic at least at some point in their life.
A Problem that is Getting Worse
Unfortunately, the author of the study is worried that the issue is only going to get worse in the future. Those men and women living in suburban and rural areas – the new generation of users – are going to find it difficult to receive treatment. According to the author, most of the addiction recovery facilities throughout the suburbs and rural areas do not have a great deal of experience when it comes to treating heroin addiction.
What this means is that when people finally realize that they need help, when they understand that their life cannot go on as it has, chances are that they will not be able to get the help they need right away. It is obvious that the face of the drug is changing, but what we might be overlooking is just how much suffering we are going to see on that face in the future.