The Coming Heroin Scourge

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Heroin has been around since 1874, and after 150 years, it’s once again surging in popularity.

According to reporting in the Wall Street Journal, this time the drug is finding a foothold in small town America as opioid users switch over from prescription drugs.

From prescription narcotics to heroin

Recently, there has been a crackdown on prescription narcotic abuse, including reformulations of strong opioids like Oxycontin. The newer tablets “lock-up” the active ingredient in a resin so addicts cannot easily extract it and then inject it. This, along with more law enforcement attention, has driven the price of prescription narcotics up while reducing the supply.

The combination has some addicts trying heroin for the first time as a cheaper alternative. Unfortunately, they also find it gives a better high and leads to crippling addiction.

Some history on heroin

Heroin itself was once a prescription drug. The story of how it first arose as a drug of abuse is full of unintended consequences and accidents of history. It goes back to the Civil War in the U.S., when doctors used morphine injections on soldiers who had suffered grievous injuries on the battlefield. The hypodermic needle had only been invented a decade before the war broke out. Sadly, the wife of the inventor was the first to die of an injectable overdose – she self-administered too much morphine.

By 1874, a decade after the Civil War, morphine addiction was on the rise, with an estimated 400,000 addictions resulting from pain treatment during and after the war. And here is where heroin comes in. The idea was to use it to treat morphine addiction – and it worked great. At 1.5 to 2 times the potency, addicts preferred heroin over morphine. The name “heroin” is the brand name. It refers to the heroic effects of the drug.

Is heroin worse than other drugs?

It’s hard to rank addictive substances, but heroin is certainly one of the worst. Imagine what life is like for an addict: He or she has to get at least a “bump” every day. Some need it twice a day. This amount of the drug doesn’t get an addict high; all it does is get him or her closer to “normal” – as close as this person can come after becoming physically addicted.

If a heroin addict doesn’t get his or her fix, within a few hours drug sickness will set in. It starts with excessive yawning and a loss of energy but quickly progresses to cold sweats, chills, severe joint and muscle aches – and then things start to get bad. Insomnia sets in along with cramps and involuntary spasms. The entire body hurts, and addicts describe their veins as “calling out for the drug.”

Here’s an example of what withdrawal is like, from a forum where addicts share their experiences:

The worst part for me is the insomnia. I was taking shits, coughing, puking, chills, fever, 'cold sweats', whole body pain, etc. for a few days, but the insomnia just doesn't let up.

Also, the insomnia seems to be nearly incurable. I have had the luxury of having xanax, valium, ambien, diphen, doxyl, melatonin, alcohol, and weed during w/ds, but even with all that, I have been unable to stop the insomnia!

The part about the insomnia that makes it so much worse than all the other symptoms of wd is that it doesnt go away. Weeks go by, and I am still unable to get enough sleep. Its kinda like saying, would you rather get punched in the stomach once, or would you rather be left outside in the cold in your underwear for a whole day? the stomach punch might be a bit more painful, but once its over, then it is over.

I end up wasting my whole day, staring at the ceiling or watching tv in hopes that I will eventually fall asleep. I daydream about the euphoria of sleeping. Especially during the first week, I would take all sorts of things and still only get about 4 hours of sleep every 36-48 hours. You enter this horrible, zombie-like state. You don't want to do anything because you want sleep, and even if you wanted to do something, you aren't really functional from being sleep deprived, but you can't fall asleep, so you are in this horrible purgatory which will never seem to end.

Along with the craving for heroin, it’s the fear of becoming “dope sick” that spurs addicts on to extreme lengths to get their fix. In the end, heroin addiction is a terrible form of chemical slavery.

What's different this time around?

The difference seems to be where heroin is showing up. Once thought to be mainly a problem in big cities, it’s now reached deep into small town America. The numbers are hard to track – addicts are not forthcoming about their drug use, especially heroin, which spawns a bizarre kind of loyalty. After all, when you depend on something that much, you aren’t likely to endanger your supply.

But according to the Wall Street Journal, use is soaring and the increase is coming in rural areas. There has been a jump of greater than 50 percent in those who have used it in the past year (over the period from 2002 to 2011). They also report there have been 3,094 overdose deaths from the drug (2010), up 55 percent from 2000.

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