Heroin: “It’s Everyday America Now”
America’s war on drugs is now engaged in a major battle against heroin. After laying dormant for decades, heroin use has been rising steadily since 2007, from 373,000 yearly users to 669,000 in 2012, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Heroin overdose deaths have also increased 45% from 2006 to 2010. Nationally, 125 people a day die from drug overdoses—78 of them from heroin and painkillers. Today’s average heroin user is more likely to live in a suburb or a small town than in the inner-city—and 90% of them are middle-aged white people, half of them women. Today’s users defy stereotypes: They can be star athletes, soccer moms, businessmen, honor students—even your neighbor.
Mayor Svante Myrick of Ithaca, New York, says the problem has become so bad in his town that he has proposed a controversial plan. Myrick’s proposal would make Ithaca the first city in the nation to provide a place for heroin users to inject under a nurse’s care, without getting arrested by police. “Heroin is everyday America now,” Myrick says.
Why Heroin? Why Now?
According to health officials, the rise of heroin can be traced to several factors: high national rates of opiate addiction, low prices, a surge in supply from Mexico, and even medical professionals who prescribe opioids for chronic pain. Studies show that patients who become addicted to prescription drugs are 40-times more likely to be addicted to heroin—which is cheaper, and easier to obtain than drugs like OxyContin. The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s surveys show about 80% of recent heroin addicts switched from opioid pain pills.
Special Agent Jack Riley, the DEA’s regional head, said in an interview with the BBC, “Heroin addiction is probably at its all-time high.”
Public Consumption Rises
According to The New York Times, public consumption of heroin is becoming more and more prevalent. Today, it’s not unusual to see users shooting up on city buses, in public parks, and on playgrounds. They often leave behind dirty needles, which poses an immense health hazard—especially for children.
A New Approach
There’s been a compassionate shift in the way some treat heroin users. The Boston Healthcare for the Homeless recently opened safe havens where users can come if they’re high and need a safe place to sit it out.
In Ithaca, support for Mayor Myrick’s supervised injection proposal has come from surprising places. Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson supports the plan and has recommended that the police stop arresting people for low-level drug offenses and direct them instead to heroin treatment centers. Of course, there are detractors who say it would provide a pathway to legalization and heroin overdose. Myrick counters, “What if the inverse is true? What if it’s not a pathway to legalization, but a pathway to heroin treatment?”
This is what’s known in the world of addiction treatment as “harm reduction.” It focuses more on reducing the dangers of drug use versus stigmatizing them, or expecting users to just stop. In the end, compassion, understanding, and treatment may be the best way to win the war on drugs.