Surge in Heroin Use Linked to Painkillers

Surge in Heroin Use Linked to Painkillers

The use of heroin nearly doubled in United States after the introduction of a reformulated version of OxyContin, a widely used opioid painkiller, according to a new report by federal health officials.

The study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration  looked at data from a national survey on drug use, conducted annually from 2002 through 2011, and found that 25 million Americans over the age of 12 had used prescription painkillers “non-medically” during that period.

800px-Injecting_HeroinResearchers found a “strong association” between the abuse of painkillers and the use of heroin, with abusers 19 times more likely to try heroin for the first time than non-abusers.

About 3.6 percent of the people who abused pain relievers tried heroin within the next five years.

“Prescription pain relievers when used properly for their intended purpose can be of enormous benefit to patients, but their nonmedical use can lead to addiction, serious physical harm and even death,” said Dr. Peter Delany, director of SAMHSA’s Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality.

“This report shows that it can also greatly increase an individual’s risk of turning to heroin use – thus adding a new dimension of potential harm.”

In recent years there has been growing concern among health officials that abusers of narcotic painkillers were shifting to heroin, particularly after the introduction of a tamper resistant version of OxyContin by Purdue Pharma.

Drug abusers found that the reformulated version of OxyContin that was introduced in 2010 was more difficult to crush and gave them less of a high. As a result, demand for the new reformulated version was much lower than that for the old form of the drug, which produced highs similar to heroin when it was snorted or injected.  The street price of the new formulation was nearly 20 to 30 percent lower than that of the old version.

The reformulation of OxyContin coincided with a surge in heroin use.

The number of people reporting that they have used heroin rose from 373,000 people in 2007 to 620,000 people in 2011. Similarly, the number of people dependent on heroin climbed from 179,000 people in 2007 to 369,000 people in 2011. The number of people starting to use heroin also increased, from 106,000 people to 178,000 people during the same period.

Heroin initiation rates went up sharply in all regions of the country, except the South where the rate stayed the lowest in the nation. Heroin initiation rates were lowest among African-Americans than other racial and ethnic groups.

While opioid pain relievers could serve as a “gateway” drug to heroin, researchers emphasized that the vast majority of people who use painkillers do not use heroin.

“Prescription pain relievers have a similar pharmacological effect as that of heroin, given their similarities in chemical structure. Although the findings indicate that NMPR (non-medical use of pain relievers) use is a common step on the pathway to heroin initiation, most NMPR users do not progress to heroin use,” the report says.

Authored by: Pat Anson, Editor

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I agree with the comments made by Kimberley. I have been taking oxycontin for about 10 years for the excruciating pain associated with FM. There is no way I would ever consider using heroin, even if it was available for FM sufferer’s. We don’t rely on this medication for any “highs” or “buzzes”, but for the sole purpose of getting some relief for the never ending pain, after all else has failed. I don’t consider this drug in the same class as heroin, maybe it’s a bit naive, but I do class it as “safe”prescribed medication. If it was something the Dr’s were not allowed to prescribe, I’m sure there are many people would not take it. It’s a last resort form of treatment, when other drugs fail…We are sufferer’s not “addicts”, there is a big difference..even if some people fail to see this.

Kimberly Miller

I am amazed that the writer reached the conclusion at the end of this article that it was obvious people will assume patients taking opioids will be likely to progress to heroin. I know it refers to people taking pain medication for non-medical use, but the implication is obvious if you’re used to being treated as a doormat in the “war on drugs”.

I was thinking, “There you go, restrict addicts’ access to prescription drugs and they will still find a way to get a buzz”. But, no, that’s not what we’re thinking at all. Instead we must be thinking, ” Those people who want to doctor-shop, whine about pain, and sit around and do nothing are now shooting up heroin.”

Could it be chronic pain patients are actually not to blame for this mess either?