People have a stereotype in mind when they think about heroin addiction, and it’s not a pretty picture. Based on stigma that was bred back in the 1970s and 1980s, any picture that you draw of your average heroin junkie will probably feature a tall, skinny, dirty male, with wild hair and wilder eyes, wearing grungy clothes, scratching absent-mindedly, and pan-handling for money. Cross the street, Debbie, you whisper to your friend, or the junkies will bother us or worse yet, try to steal your money to get more heroin.
While there were admittedly people who fit that image back then, this persistent depiction of the typical heroin addict sprang from the days before pain pills containing hydrocodone and oxycodone hit the streets. Those were the days when heroin addiction was still a crime limited to the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. It’s true that most of them came from impoverished neighborhoods or racial minorities.
The laws were harsh and intended to scare people away from using drugs or incarcerate them for a long, long time if they did. The Rockefeller laws passed in New York in 1973 sent someone up the river for 15 years to life if they were caught selling two ounces or simply in possession of up to four ounces of heroin. Just a decade later, with the War on Drugs in full swing, federal regulations followed suit.
But today’s heroin addicts are not likely to resemble yesterday’s welfare queens and bleary-eyed pimp junkies. The pain pill crisis has sent millions into heroin addiction. The people who use pain pills without a prescription—the people who borrow or take medication from family or friends—are 40 times more likely to become dependent on heroin.
One of the common gripes you hear today is that all the welfare bums should be drug tested before they get taxpayer money. Well, hold the phone on that one, too—when the state of Utah spent $25,000 drug testing welfare recipients, they found only 2.5 percent of them testing positive.
It used to be that those harsh jail sentences and grumbling about testing welfare recipients came from well-to-do conservatives, Republicans who wanted to eliminate the dirty unwashed legions of junkies that came from the lower levels of the society. But with the scourge of addiction now firmly ensconced in the suburbs, the pendulum has swung the other way. Lawmakers on both sides of the congressional aisle have lent their voices to the support of addiction treatment preferred over incarceration. And thank goodness, it’s long past time. They’re finally recognizing opiate and heroin addiction as the medical disease that it truly is.
Heroin Addiction Moves to the Suburbs
Business women and housewives in Texas, according to one story, carry out their daily activities without difficulty as long as they can get their daily fix of pain pills. Some of them take up to 20 pills a day, spending from $200 to $600 as long as they can afford it. If you saw Meryl Streep playing the mom character in August: Osage County, you can assure yourself that an upper middle class female swinging around a baggie of assorted pain pills is the reality of today’s addicts.
Our nation’s young adults in high school and in college, the best and the brightest who earn scholarships for cheerleading and football, injure themselves during practice, get prescriptions for pain pills, and can easily become addicted. Parents never want to think that their child could become addicted; however, everyone’s body reacts differently to opiates. That is why it is so critical to take opioid prescriptions only as directed by the prescribing physician for the problem that it was prescribed for.
But then the abusers turn to heroin. The parents—or the kids—can no longer get pain pills, because the doctors have caught on that they are abusing drugs. The relatives they were stealing them from run out of medications, and the supply of pain pills on the street dries up or becomes cost prohibitive. They turn to heroin, not necessarily because it’s much cheaper, but because it’s available.
According to an analysis by Andrew Cohen for The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uncovers inequities in our criminal justice system, almost 90 percent of people who experiment with heroin for the first time are white. He quotes medical researchers whose data were published in JAMA Psychiatry in July 2014: Heroin addiction has moved to the suburbs, “involving primarily white men and women in their late 20s living outside of large urban areas.”
Addiction Treatment Forum tells us that between 2006 and 2013, first-time heroin users have doubled. A decade ago we had 90,000, and now we have 169,000. And the Centers for Disease Control estimate that deaths from heroin addiction have quadrupled between 2002 and 2013.
You Don’t Expect It to Be You
You may be one of the people affected by this new epidemic. You had a prescription, and you’re worried what you’ll do when you can no longer get it. Maybe you’ve already taken the pills your elderly mom had set aside after her hip replacement.
The idea goes beyond puzzling you and frankly frightens you. But the fear of becoming an addict is balanced by your need for the drugs, whether it’s still the pain pills or maybe you’ve advanced to heroin. How did this ever happen to you?
When heroin addiction strikes, it changes who you are, and there is evidence that it affects normal brain function. Opiates like pain pills and heroin are the most addictive substances on Earth, according to most medical researchers, and as you use more, you need more, without even reaching the enjoyment or pleasure that you once experienced. If your suburban drug delivery person runs dry, your normal daily routine turns into a desperate search for something that will satisfy your body’s cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Suddenly, you’re the heroin addict that the media are all talking about.
But there’s hope. Medication-assisted treatmentoffers an alternative to fighting the irresistible urges to use at any cost. Programs are managed by a physician and a team of clinicians, and the effects of the methadone or buprenorphine prescribed are far less scourging on your body. You can jump off the merry-go-round of addiction and get into treatment right now.
The people who treat substance use disorder talk about a common phenomenon among the people admitted for heroin addiction. Once a person enters treatment and begins to take it seriously, a strange thing happens. With illegal drugs out of their system, and the issues in their lives becoming more manageable, people begin to remember the dreams they used to have and the hobbies that once held their interest. You’ll see people who leave their treatment program and carve out some time in the day to take an art class; they write a poem and submit it to a magazine; or they join a parent organization within their neighborhood. It can happen to you. Just call your local methadone treatment program.
In the meantime, we all need to pay attention to the Andrew Cohens of the world, the people who are alerting us to the truth about addiction. The myths of heroin addiction are broken wide open, and we now know how to fight back. Learn about organizations like The Marshall Project and Stop Stigma Now. Listen and learn from policy makers. Make your opinion count by going to your voting booth. We can all make a difference.