HEROIN ADDICTION: A GROWING EPIDEMIC
Heroin use is hitting an all-time high in the United States.
Between 2007 and 2012, the numbers of people using the drug each year rose from 373,000 to 669,000, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
In 2011, 4.2 million Americans aged 12 or older (or 1.6 percent) had used heroin at least once in their lives, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
America's addiction to heroin and other opioids has reached tsunami proportions, experts say. And overdose deaths are riding the crest of that wave.
"Here in Pennsylvania, overdose deaths have increased 473 percent since 1990," said Gary Tennis, secretary of the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. "Between 2009 and 2013, county coroners identified almost 3,000 heroin-related overdose deaths. Nationally, more people are dying from heroin overdoses than car crashes."
"It's an epidemic," state Rep. Jerry Knowles told those attending a Schuylkill County hearing held in August to explore the problem.
How it happened
Cheap, plentiful and highly addictive, heroin has invaded every strata of society. It's cheaper now than ever because of a flood of the drug coming into the United States from Mexico. Heroin is now cheap, a bag often costs less than a pack of cigarettes.
"According to National Seizure System data, the amount of heroin seized each year at the southwest border increased 232 percent from 2008 (558.8 kilograms) to 2012 (1,855 kilograms). The increase in southwest border seizures appears to correspond with increasing levels of production of Mexican heroin and the expansion of Mexican heroin traffickers into new U.S. markets," The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said in its 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment summary.
So many more people are using heroin, authorities believe, because powerful narcotic painkillers have until very recently been the norm.
In May, the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry published a study that found that, compared with previous generations of heroin users, people who have recently become addicted are more likely to be older, to be white, to live in suburban or rural areas, and to have previously abused prescription painkillers.
They move from prescription painkillers to heroin when the prescription drugs become too expensive because the person has lost his or her insurance coverage, or when the prescribing doctors balk at writing additional orders. Recently enacted laws have increased government tracking of prescription opiates, making it more difficult for people to "doctor-shop" for prescriptions.
Far too many heroin addicts get their start via prescription drugs, says Michael Harle, president of the drug treatment program Guadenzia.
"What weighs 111 tons?" he asks. "Twenty-two adult elephants. Every year, 69 tons of oxycodone and 42 tons of hydrocodone are shipped to pharmacies around the United States. This is enough to provided 40 Percocets and 20 Vicodins to every man, woman and child in the country."
Sapping the economy
Bob Carl, executive director of the Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce, said at an August public hearing on heroin addiction that employers are finding more and more job applicants fail drug screenings.
Carl cited Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry Gene Barr, who testified about the problem at a hearing in Williamsport in July.
In April 2013, the chamber surveyed 464 Pennsylvania businesses regarding their ability to find qualified employees.
Of those, 32 percent said that passing background checks, including drug screening, was among the difficulties, Carl said.
Not only is heroin addiction keeping people unemployed, it's forcing record numbers into lives of crime.
Roughly 70 percent of those in our prisons and county jails have untreated substance abuse problems, Tennis said.
There is a "large amount of criminal cases that, if you would just look at the charges, you would think are not related to drugs," Schuylkill County District Judge James Reiley testified at the August heroin hearing.
"However, if you look closer, often you will find they are related to drugs. These cases are retail theft, theft, receiving stolen property, burglary and robbery."
For police officers, the front-line soldiers in the war on drugs, the battle is frustrating and repetitive. They arrest dealers, only to see them back out on the streets in a short time. They arrest users, but the addictive quality of heroin is so strong that few are able to get - and stay - clean.
The most obvious solution is never to take that first hit of heroin. That's where education comes in. Only 50 of the state's 500 school districts provide Drug Abuse Resistance Education, D.A.R.E. sessions, Reiley said.
But for those already in heroin's clutches, rehab is crucial. However, many if not most addicts are unable to pay for the most effective programs, which are long-term.
For the first time in 30 years, heroin has become the primary drug of choice over all of the 19,000 admissions last year to the drug treatment organization Guadenzia, said Harle.
In 2002, 15 percent of those being admitted named heroin as their drug of choice. By 2012, that had jumped to 26 percent.
Harle urged lawmakers to enact an emergency addiction treatment fund to pay for long-term treatment of those addicted to heroin, and to prescription opiates such as OxyContin.
"The drug companies that manufacture and make billions on the sale of these drugs should be required to contribute to this fund," he said.
Michael Ogden, program director at The Bridge treatment center, Philadelphia, said that in 2012, more than 23 million Americans needed treatment for drug or alcohol problems, but only about 11 percent actually received it.
"Treatment is smart, as noted by (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) because in the United States, illicit drug use costs $190 billion, including loss of productivity and health care expenditures," he said. "We must use appropriate treatment interventions, work for easier access to care, and increase funding so people can get the appropriate care."