Illegal drugs come in many shapes and sizes, from rave drugs like LSD to more ubiquitous drugs like marijuana, but few are as dangerous as heroin. Driving thousands of deaths from coast to coast each year – over 13,000 in 2015 alone – this toxic substance is ripping the United States apart.
But why is this happening? Heroin has had a strong presence in the U.S. and Europe for centuries, with medicinal use dating back to the 1800s, but the destruction has never been as widespread as it is currently. Is heroin today more dangerous than it was just decades ago?
The answer, of course, is yes. There’s no denying that modern heroin is more hazardous than ever before, putting countless lives at risk across the nation. While other factors certainly play a role, the changing face of heroin’s potency is a significant part of the problem.
The History of Heroin
Heroin has a long history in the United States, with initial use dating back hundreds of years. First derived by boiling morphine for a more concentrated approach to pain management, it didn’t take long for the pleasures of heroin to extend far beyond the medical field.
While opium and its liquid form, laudanum, were used for centuries in Asia and Europe, morphine was among the first opiates embraced by the American medical community. Popularized during the Civil War as a way to control the agony that came with wound treatments and amputations, the pain-killing properties of morphine became instrumental to health care. And so did addiction; morphine addiction became so common that it was known as “soldier’s disease” by the end of the war.
While the downsides of morphine were highly evident by this point, heroin was still an unknown danger lurking on the horizon. It was first introduced to the commercial market by Bayer in 1898 – the same Bayer known for Aspirin today – as a non-addictive alternative that could be used to wean suffering patients off of morphine and treat cough-related illnesses like bronchitis and tuberculosis. In fact, in 1906, it was even recommended by the American Medical Association for general use in place of morphine.
It didn’t take long for medical professionals to learn just how wrong they were. This free reign of heroin use led to rapid addiction problems, with 200,000 developing an addiction in New York City alone. In 1914, the government sought a quick fix, outlawing the recreational use of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana with the Harrison Narcotics Act. As is no surprise, this did little but fill prisons with drug users while doing vitually nothing to actually reduce access.
Due to the subsequent crackdown in the U.S. in response to this cirsis, heroin production moved overseas, taking root in China and France most notably. This eventually led to the role of organized crime in heroin production and distribution, strongly contributing to the street presence the drug enjoys to this day.
The State of Heroin Today
Despites its illegal status, heroin never went away, lurking in the shadows for decades until one major change took place in the 1990s: the rise of prescription opioid use.
After hundreds of years of struggles related to addictive opioid pain killers, pharmaceutical companies took a new approach at the conclusion of the twentieth century. Despite falling for similar ruses before, doctors took these corporations at their word when promised that synthetic opioid pain pills wouldn’t cause addiction, leading to a strong and uninhibited spike in use for conditions ranging from breaks and sprains to major surgery. Unfortunately, the claims made to physicians turned out to be extremely false, creating a rampant drug abuse problem that still perpetuates today. An estimated 12.5 million people misused opiates in 2015, and approximately 90 people die per day from opioid overdoses.
In response to the mounting addiction challenges in the U.S., the government has cracked down on use, imposing harsh regulations on the prescription and application of pain medication in both hospital and home settings. While not necessarily effective in staving off addiction entirely, these restrictions do make opioids much harder to secure. However, this has created a new problem officials didn’t see coming: an increase in heroin use.
Significantly cheaper and easier to obtain, heroin is steadily taking the place of opioid drugs for abusers in all 50 states. An estimated 4% to 6% of those who abuse prescription drugs transition to heroin, and 80% of those who once abused opiates now abuse heroin.
The Mounting Dangers of Heroin
Unlike prescription drugs that are carefully dosed and regulated by doctors, heroin has absolutely no oversight or regulation whatsoever. Due to the vague origins of street drugs, users have no idea who made their heroin, where it’s coming from, and what’s in it. And this, unfortunately, has proved to be devastating.
The high level of uncertainty that comes with street drugs is at the root of the problem behind heroin use. Some supplies are weak or fake while others are pure and extremely strong, leaving users guessing on doses in a way that can dramatically increase the likelihood of overdose.
Furthermore, an alarming new trend is emerging that has contributed significantly to the rise in overdoses: fentanyl. A synthetic and extremely potent opiate that’s among the most powerful on the market, fentanyl is very safe when used in therapeutic settings but very, very dangerous when not monitored by a doctor.
Due to the strength of fentanyl – over 50 times that of heroin and 100 times that of morphine – many street dealers and heroin manufacturers are cutting heroin with it, causing overdoses in even seasoned users. In fact, of the 28,000 opioid overdose-related deaths that took place in 2014, nearly 6,000 were linked to the presence of fentanyl. Some dealers and manufacturers use it to increase the high available from heroin, while others use it to reduce production costs. Whatever the reason, fentanyl is responsible for thousands of deaths with a toll that’s still on the rise. Fentanyl is even suspected in the death of famed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Despite the heightened level of understanding – most users realize the dangers lurking within illegal drugs – it isn’t making a difference. Heroin-related deaths have quadrupled since 2010 with a rise of 23% from 2015 to 2016. Tragically, heroin is one of the most addictive substances in the world, and ceasing use alone is virtually impossible, no matter how badly users want to quit.
Seeking a Resolution
With an increasing strength and growing popularity, heroin is now considered a crisis in the United States. Announced as such earlier this month by President Trump on a national level and previously by six individual states, the reality of heroin is no surprise. What remains unclear, however, is what can be done. While drug treatment professionals hope to see changes to how the U.S. handles rehabilitation and recovery, no plan is yet in place to halt this serious turn of events.
Heroin addiction is a grave problem that deserves immediate assistance. If you or someone you love is struggling with heroin, help is available. Please call TTC Care today at [phone] to take the first steps toward sobriety.