Heroin, Painkillers IDed as Top Drug Threat in US

November 7, 2015
substance abuse and mental healthThe Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently released the 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment.
Topping the list of the worst offenders when it comes to drug abuse, addiction, and overdose in the United States are opiate painkillers (e.g., hydrocodone- and oxycodone-based drugs) and heroin. The report found that in 2013 there were more than 46,000 drug overdoses reported in the US. About 50 percent of these were due to the use or abuse of prescription medications, and about 8,000 were caused by heroin use.

Those numbers sound high, but in the grand scheme of things, where do they fit? According to the data released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that track causes of death among Americans, these numbers mean that drug use and abuse in general caused more deaths than car accidents in 2013. Additionally, if you add up the deaths caused by alcohol (other than drunk driving), drunk driving, drug overdose, and prescription drug overdose, these issues contributed to almost half of the deaths that occurred in 2013.

Chuck Rosenberg is the DEA’s acting administrator. He said: “Sadly this report confirms what we’ve known for some time.”

While synthetic drugs, alcohol, and a range of substances are clearly wreaking havoc in communities across the country, the greatest and most damaging change was seen in the use of heroin. The consequences of prescription painkiller abuse are continuing as well.

The DEA reported that:

  • Rates of heroin availability, fueled mostly by Mexican drug cartels, are up across the country – in rural and suburban areas as much as metropolitan areas.
  • Rates of heroin abuse increased about 51 percent between 2013 and 2014.
  • In 2010, heroin seizures in the US amounted to about 2,763 kilograms of product, and by 2014, that number had increased to more than 5,000 kilograms.
  • Potency of heroin seized has increased as well, which may contribute to the higher rates of overdose and death due to overdose.
  • Heroin use is most popular in the Midwest and the Northeast, but it is a problem everywhere in the country.

Additionally, the DEA found that the rate of deaths due to prescription drugs have been higher than the rate of deaths caused by heroin and cocaine put together since 2002. Prescription drug abuse is a higher than abuse of heroin, PCP, cocaine, MDMA, and methamphetamine combined.

The Opiate Addiction Trend

What is driving this steadily increasing use of opiate drugs like prescription painkillers and heroin? Some still blame doctors for being quick with the prescription pad at the slightest sign of discomfort in the early part of the last decade, often prescribing too high of a dose or too many pills for a relatively small issue and with little medical follow-up. Even if the person did not abuse the drug, the medication often stayed in the medicine cabinet at home and was ultimately abused by someone else in the family. Many believe that the high rates of prescription drug abuse started here, continued with the proliferation of illegal pain clinics, and were not fixed by the implementation of legislation designed to stem the flow of painkillers into the black market.

The lack of availability of painkillers due to legislative change, rather than encouraging people living with addiction to seek treatment for the problem, may have done little more than encourage people to seek other resources. Heroin, cheaper and more readily available on the black market than painkillers, was an easy fix. For many, painkiller addiction quickly morphed into heroin addiction and, unfortunately, early death due to overdose.

Good News?

Despite the devastating confirmation that opiate drugs are causing tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths every year, there was one bright note in the DEA’s findings. Rosenberg said that there was a declining availability and use of cocaine, and that in 2014, the “new normal” levels of cocaine were “well below availability levels observed prior to 2007” when a decline in cocaine availability was first noted.

More Good News

No matter what the drug of choice – and it is clear that synthetic drugs imported from China, methamphetamine, and marijuana are all contributing significantly to the rates of overdose and deaths by caused by drug-related accident and disease as well – the ongoing good news is that treatment is available and it works. Millions of people around the world are living in recovery, learning how to live without relapse, and finding healthier coping mechanisms to manage the issues that may have driven them to abuse drugs and alcohol in the first place.

A comprehensive treatment program may be provided on an inpatient or outpatient basis but should include:

  • Medical detox to address withdrawal symptoms, if necessary
  • Evaluation and assessment to identify all co-occurring mental health or behavioral disorders
  • A personalized treatment plan created specifically to address the individual’s needs
  • Personal therapy that allows for regular assessment of progress and goal achievement during recovery
  • Group therapy to increase levels of community support
  • Holistic and alternative therapies to increase the range of resources available to the person in recovery
  • Family support and education to create a household that is supportive of long-term recovery
  • Aftercare therapy and support that encourages ongoing engagement with positive principles of treatment

Treatment does work, and overdose is not an inevitable end to addiction no matter what the drug of choice. If someone in your family is struggling, connect with the resources that will empower that person in recovery today.

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