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Does Prescription Painkiller Abuse Lead to Heroin Addiction?

Over the past 15 years, use of prescription painkillers has increased by a shocking 300 percent. These days, doctors are significantly more likely to prescribe prescription opiate drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin to help patients manage chronic and acute pain. While many people use these drugs properly and safely, there’s no doubt that prescription painkiller abuse has become a deadly epidemic in the United States. The rate of death from drug overdoses has more than tripled since 1990, with a good portion of those deaths being related to prescription drug abuse. In 2008 alone, prescription drugs were implicated in 14,800 overdose deaths.

Efforts by lawmakers, police and pharmaceutical manufacturers to address the problem of prescription drug abuse have been successful to some extent. However, heroin abuse and overdose death rates have been rising in recent years. Experts believe that there’s a strong link between the prescription drug abuse epidemic and the recent surge in heroin use.

Prescription Opiates — A Gateway Drug?

According to a report from HealthDay, abusing prescription drugs significantly raises a person’s risk of becoming a heroin abuser. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has determined that almost 80 percent of people who use heroin admit to having previously illegally abused prescription painkillers. Researchers found that people aged 12 to 49 who have abused prescription painkillers are 19 times more likely to start abusing heroin than their peers. The number of Americans who admitted to having used heroin in the past year almost doubled between 2007 and 2012, from 373,000 to 669,000. Over 12 million people in the United States use prescription painkillers for recreational purposes.

Addiction experts believe that the prevalence of prescription painkillers may have opened the door to heroin addiction to people who would never have otherwise tried opiates. Heroin use carries a heavy stigma, and most people are aware that it is dangerous. However, many people suffer from the misconception that prescription painkillers are safe, because they come from a pharmaceutical manufacturer instead of a street dealer. By the time prescription painkiller abusers realize that these drugs are just as addictive as heroin, it’s often too late. They’re already addicted.

The Changing Face of Heroin Addiction

Heroin addiction today doesn’t look the same as it did in the past. The ubiquity of prescription opiates has given today’s opiate addicts more options.

Drexel University sociologist and addiction researcher Stephen E. Lankenau told the New York Times, “The old-school user, pre-1990s, mostly just used heroin, and if there was none around, went through withdrawal.” These days, according to Lankenau, “users switch back and forth, to pills then back to heroin when it’s available, and back again. The two have become integrated.”

When lawmakers cracked down on “pill mills” and pharmaceutical companies took steps to make their prescription painkillers harder to abuse, prescription pill addicts didn’t give up using drugs and get treatment. Instead, they turned to heroin, which was suddenly much cheaper and easier to get than prescription painkillers.

Prevention and Treatment Are the Answers to Opiate Addiction

As the crackdown on prescription painkiller abuse has shown, getting rid of a source of drugs is only a small part of the solution. Though prescription monitoring programs and similar efforts might have some benefit for preventing prescription drug abuse in the future, they can do little to help those struggling with opiate addiction now. Efforts to combat drug abuse, addiction and overdose deaths must include prevention initiatives and treatment for addicts. At a Bay Area drug rehab, opiate addicts can get the help they need to get clean and stay that way.

Many states are already implementing overdose prevention laws. In 14 states, drug abusers can now call for emergency medical care in an overdose situation without fear of legal repercussions. In 17 states, lawmakers have taken steps to make naloxone, a life-saving opiate overdose antidote, more available to the public. Naloxone can be safely and effectively administered by anyone, with or without medical training. Around the nation, programs have already distributed 53,000 naloxone kits to those at risk, and 10,000 overdoses have already been reversed.

While efforts to combat the prescription painkiller epidemic have successfully reduced rates of prescription drug abuse, most former pill addicts have simply switched to using heroin, leading to a drastic increase in heroin abuse rates and overdose deaths. Opiate addicts can now get heroin much more easily than they can get pills, and for much cheaper. In order to truly combat opiate addiction, treatment resources need to be as readily available to addicts as the drugs themselves.

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