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Why Heroin Use Rising while Other Drugs Declining?
Peter Shumlin- the Democratic governor of Vermont- called attention to a serious issue that is happening throughout the country- a dangerous increase in heroin abuse. While the governor limited his speech to address the issues in Vermont, we have seen a dramatic national increase in the use of the drug in recent years. Since 2000, the level of abuse with this particular substance is up 770 percent. What is happening in Vermont is nothing but a small-scale version of what goes on throughout the rest of the country. The number of first-time users has increased by almost 60 percent in just ten years. SAMHSA (the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) places the estimates at 156,000 new users yearly.
A Growing Problem
According to sources from the Associated Press, the popularity of heroin can be traced back to the abuse of prescription opioids. The drug is not suddenly being discovered by an entire generation, it is being used because it is easier to obtain and less expensive than prescription painkillers. One of the major turning points in this situation was the reformulation of OxyContin. This new formula made it far more difficult for users to abuse the drug, primarily because the tablets would dissolve or turn into a gelatinous substance when exposed to water.
Vermont is not the only state plagued with these issues. The Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services is warning that the availability of the drug is only increasing. According to research by the Ohio Department of Health, the number of heroin-involved deaths is increasing as well.
Exploring the Cause of the Issue
This problem has been explored before. Prescription opioid medication was widely available and people were receiving prescriptions without too much difficulty. It was available in both urban and suburban areas.
If we drastically reduce the supply of a particular substance, which is what happened in this particular instance, there are only three real alternatives to what could happen:
This is not a shocking new development. The idea of switching was already discussed at length in the New England Journal of Medicine. The researchers found that there was a dramatic shift towards heroin in those users who were previously struggling with prescription opioid abuse.
How Can We Change the Situation?
It would be easy to blame pharmaceutical companies or place the blame on the Food and Drug Administration. It would be easy to blame healthcare professionals for the excessive prescribing of opioid pain relievers. However, those are all steps that do nothing to change the immediate fact that the number of heroin-related deaths is skyrocketing. It is important to look at the facts and make changes accordingly. There is no denying that more should have been done to prevent dependence from forming in the first place, but that does not change anything. As of right now, the first step would be to take a chunk of our yearly budget that goes towards drug law enforcement and use it to educate people about the dangers of opioids.
The second part would be to invest heavily in promoting and offering treatment. Unless people receive the help they need to get sober and make changes in their life, the majority of users are not going to change their behavior. They may change their drug of choice, they may change the way they are able to pay for it, but the constant drug-seeking behavior is going to continue. This is why these people need a long-term treatment program that does more than sober them up temporarily. A long-term recovery program allows people to have a chance to become sober and understand why they became dependent upon a substance in the first place. The current way of thinking is doing no one any favors. It is important to re-evaluate the problem and understand that crime and social costs are not the root cause of the issue, they are direct consequences because of our current actions. By treating someone like a criminal, it makes it impossible for them to get their life back on track. If we want to make it more appealing for people to seek out drug treatment recovery, it is important that treatment is the primary method of dealing with substance abuse issues- not punishment.