Heroin-Related Deaths Continue to Rise Despite Government Intervention
We are in the midst of the deadliest drug crisis in our history. Within the past 16 years, the number of heroin-related deaths has increased by 533 percent, and those numbers are increasing faster than ever before.
Nearly two-thirds of our drug-related fatalities involve heroin and other opioids; the trend has been escalating to an all-time high since 2015. The substantial increase in the death toll is attributed to drug dealers lacing heroin with other drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil, without the knowledge of the people using the drugs.
The increasing death rates from heroin and opioid abuse has prompted an urgent response from our government to try to curtail opioid use and get life-saving anti-overdose medications into the hands of those who may need it. New laws also exempt those in need of emergency care from legal repercussions.
A History of Creating Dependence and Addiction
Heroin was first produced in 1898 by a German pharmaceutical company. It did not take long for heroin to show it’s dark side. This substance is so addictive that by the early 1900s the widespread use of heroin prompted the opening of many addiction treatment centers in local hospitals across the country.
One of the reasons heroin addiction takes over and eventually claims so many lives is because of it’s ability to alter the chemistry of your brain. Heroin enters quickly and binds to your opioid receptors. With regular use, heroin users develop a tolerance for the drug prompting higher dosages and more frequent use. Withdrawal can begin within a few hours, prompting the more frequent use of progressively larger amounts of the drug. As of October, this drug crisis has been declared a national emergency.
Restricting Opioid Prescriptions to Curtail Opioid Dependence
More than 80 percent of heroin users report previous or current prescription opioid misuse. The recent restrictions imposed on prescription opioids are the result of lawmakers looking to quickly solve our nation’s growing relationship with heroin and other opioid sources. Nearly every state has guidelines and restrictions in place to help curb opioid dependency. These laws target nurses, doctors, and pharmacists who prescribe or fill too many prescriptions, while offering immunity of prosecution for those seeking overdose treatment.
The results of prescription opioid limitations have been mixed. Some chronic pain sufferers feel caught in the crossfire, while abusers are becoming more resourceful, turning to heroin to fuel their opioid dependence.
The Theory of Opioid Restriction
The theory of restricting the way doctors prescribe opioids assume that patients who are limited in their exposure to opioid medications will not become dependent. Restrictions are also based on the belief that the less exposure our population has to prescription opioid medication, the fewer people in our country will resort to seeking out illicit substances, such as heroin, to fuel their opioid addiction. Understanding the path of addiction may help explain that connection. We know that:
- Opioids change the way chemicals are produced in the body
- Chemical changes create dependence on the medication or substance to function
- Depletion of chemicals, like endorphins and dopamine, cause strong urges to continue to self-medicate
- Addictions and dependencies are difficult to feed when prescription access is restricted
- Illegal drugs, like heroin, are easy to obtain and may be less expensive than prescriptions
- Too often a person living with a substance abuse disorder will resort to purchasing their prescription meds on the streets
- Limited resources eventually lead to heroin or fentanyl use
US Physicians Prescribe 80 Percent of All Opioids
Physicians in the United States are reportedly responsible for 80 percent of the pain medications prescribed worldwide. This is alarming since the US only claims five percent of the world’s population even though there is no scientific evidence that opioid-based pain medications are effective to treat long-term chronic pain.
Opioids, like fentanyl and oxycontin, may be a short-term solution for pain and discomfort, but over time we all build a resistance to the effectiveness of opioid medications. This leads to the temptation of increasingly larger dosages at decreasingly timed intervals. This cycle can continue until all boundaries are pushed, all limits exceeded, and the risk of accidental overdose and death seems almost inevitable.
The Jump from Prescriptions to Heroin
Many prescribed opioids end up on the black market or are shared between family members or friends. This behavior encourages a path to drug dependency. Opioid users often jump from opioids to heroin because heroin is cheaper and often easier to access than the original prescription that created the dependency. Unfortunately, while the use of prescription opioids show a downward trend, heroin abuse has almost doubled.
Reducing Heroin-Related Deaths with Naloxone
Every 19 minutes a life is lost to an opioid overdose. Those numbers could potentially be much worse. Lives are being saved by on overdose-reversing drug called Naloxone. This medication is a key player in our response to the nation’s epidemic of heroin-related deaths.
Physicians have been advised by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to consider offering Naloxone to those who are vulnerable to an opioid overdose. There are also laws in place to protect health care providers who prescribe this overdose-reversing medication from criminal and civil prosecution, as well as laws that protect first responders who use naloxone for crisis intervention.
Anyone who uses opioid medications could benefit by having Naloxone on hand in case of an accidental overdose. Those who may most benefit from having naloxone available include:
- Those discharged from emergency care after an overdose
- Anyone who has an opioid use disorder
- Those who may misuse prescription opioids, heroin or fentanyl
- Anyone taking higher doses of opioids for chronic pain management who combines their prescriptions with alcohol or other medications
Naloxone, when given immediately after an overdose, binds to opioid receptors and blocks the effects of heroin and other opioids. It is available as a solution injected by needle, an auto-injector, or as a nasal spray. With the increase in heroin overdoses, naloxone is available to all at-risk persons and their families. In several states, naloxone is available upon request without a prescription.
Heroin addiction is killing our population at an alarming rate. For those at risk of heroin or opioid-related overdose, naloxone could potentially save their life if administered immediately at the first indication of an accidental overdose. Those with a history of opioid dependence, including heroin, should consider the potential benefits of having this overdose-reversing medication available.
Of course, the most effective way to reduce your risk of a heroin-related death is to get appropriate treatment for your substance use disorder. You can learn to live your life without the substances that are holding you hostage. Finding the help you need and recovering from your disorder may be much easier than you anticipate.