Heroin use has dramatically increased in the United States among both men and women, in nearly all age groups and income levels. Some of the greatest increases are among groups with historically low rates of heroin use – women, the privately insured and those with higher incomes.
Heroin use more than doubled among young adults ages 18-25 in the past decade. More than 90 percent of people who used heroin also used at least one other drug; 45 percent of people who used heroin were also addicted to prescription opioid painkillers. Heroin-related overdose deaths have quadrupled over the past 12 years.
Classified as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act, heroin has no acceptable medical use. It is an opioid drug (called an opioid agonist) synthesized from morphine. It can be injected, smoked, or inhaled by snorting or sniffing. When combined with other opioids, heroin is a recipe for a potential overdose and even death.
It is a central nervous system depressant that slows down brain function. It affects breathing by slowing or even stopping it. Body temperature and blood pressure drop and heartbeat can become irregular.
Heroin affects the brain’s pleasure systems and interferes with the brain’s ability to perceive pain. Users report an initial surge of euphoria and relaxation. Mental functioning is impaired due to the depression of the central nervous system.
Long-term heroin users may develop collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, and liver or kidney disease. Pulmonary complications, including various types of pneumonia, may result from the poor health of the user as well as from heroin’s effects on breathing. In addition to the effects of the drug itself, street heroin may have additives that do not fully dissolve and result in clogging the blood vessels that lead to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain. This can cause infection or even death of small patches of cells in vital organs.
“If we go by national trends, it’s just natural to expect that heroin will start showing up in the state,” says Denise Robertson, prescription monitoring program administrator at the Arkansas Department of Health. “People are looking at a less-expensive substitute opioid and heroin is much cheaper.”
“It’s coming and it’s coming fast,” says Lonoke County Sheriff John Staley. “With the impact that our narcotics detectives have had on prescription pills in Lonoke County we’re already preparing for the influx of heroin. It’s slowed down the market for prescription pills in Lonoke County but, in turn, it’s going to cause heroin to move in,” Staley says.
The easier availability of heroin in Arkansas may have already started. In 2014, law enforcement statewide reported 12 incidents involving the drug. For the first half of 2015, 11 incidents have already been reported.
The CDC recommends to health care providers the following as responses to the heroin epidemic:
- Addiction to prescription opioid painkillers (such as Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet) is the strongest risk factor for heroin addiction. Prevent people from starting heroin by improving opioid painkiller prescribing practices and identifying high-risk individuals early.
- Make prescription-monitoring programs easier for doctors and pharmacists to use.
- Reduce heroin addiction. Increase access to substance abuse treatment services, including Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), which combines medications with counseling and behavioral therapies.
- Reverse heroin overdose by expanding the use of naloxone, a life-saving drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdoes, if administered in time. Expand training on the correct use of naloxone.
- Provide resources for support group meetings.
- Call 1-800-662-HELP or visit SAMHSA at www.samhsa.gov to get help and learn more about the risks of using heroin and other drugs.