Overdose deaths from a type of legal drug hit record numbers -- and that's not the most disturbing part of the problem

Heroin use in the US is skyrocketing. The number of people using this powerful, addictive drug has grown by nearly 300,000 in the past decade, and more and more people are dying from overdose.

But while tragic, these numbers are still outshadowed by another, equally disturbing statistic: The rise in deaths from people overdosing on powerful, legal opioid painkillers such as Vicodin or OxyContin — the same drugs many experts have said may open the door to later heroin use.

Overdoses involving these popular drugs rose by 9% last year, according to a new CDC report released in December.

Research suggests that one of the reasons that abusing opiates can make people more susceptible to future heroin abuse is because the drugs act similarly in the brain. A CDC report released this summer found that people who abused opiate painkillers were 40 times as likely to abuse heroin.

Here’s a chart looking at overdose deaths from opioid pain relievers and heroin, compared against overdose deaths from cocaine and marijuana. The latest data, revised in December, goes until 2014:

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