Why Heroin Use Is Skyrocketing Across The US

Heroin abuse has been getting more attention lately.

Last week, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin spent his entire 34-minute State of the State address talking about the state’s “full-blown heroin crisis,” and law enforcement officials in small cities across New England have noted an increase in heroin use.

Demand for the drug might be coming from people who are hooked on prescription pills.

Health officials and drug experts have started noticing that heroin use has been exploding as states crack down on “pill mills,” which get people addicted to Oxycontin and other pain killers even when they don’t have a medical need for them.

David DiSalvo writes in Forbes that the increase in heroin use has overlapped with a decrease in pain killer abuse. He notes that the number of new non-medical users of pain killers dropped from 2.2 million in 2002 to 1.9 million in 2012:

The reason may come down to basic economics: Illegally obtained prescription pain killers have become more expensive and harder to get, while the price and difficulty in obtaining heroin have decreased. An 80 mg OxyContin pill runs between $US60 to $US100 on the street. Heroin costs about $US9 a dose. Even among heavy heroin abusers, a day’s worth of the drug is cheaper than a couple hits of Oxy.

As states crack down on pill mills, fewer people will be able to obtain the drugs through a prescription and supply will be cut off. Pain pills become less available and more expensive.

Drug companies have also made their pills harder to crush and snort, the Wall Street Journal notes.

This might lead some people who are already hooked on the pills to turn to heroin, which has a similar effect on the brain as pain killers.

Pain killer abusers still outstrip heroin users in numbers. In 2012, pain killers were the second-most abused drug, with 2.1 million people admitting to dependence or abuse that year, according to SAMHSA. The rate of use increased from 1.4 million in 2004 to 2.1 million in 2012.

Heroin’s upward trajectory appears to have started around 2009. Use of the drug spiked in 2006, dropped back down in 2008, and has risen steadily after that to reach record highs in 2012, as the chart below indicates.

An expert who spoke to The Philadelphia Inquirer notes that more funding for treatment programs could help addicts kick their habits instead of turn to other drugs when one supply is cut off.

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