Today the US is suffering from the worst opioid crisis in its entire history. For a bit of perspective, in 2016 alone, opioids killed more Americans than in the entire Vietnam War. Data from The New York Times revealed that during that year, there were 59,000 who died from drug overdose. Meanwhile, 57,939 died or went missing in the 20-year war. From 2010 to 2015 heroin overdoses in America have tripled.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that almost a million Americans in 2016 claimed to have used heroin in the past year. Most of the people who abuse the opioid belong to the 18 – 25 age group. In that year, 170,000 people picked up the vice. The number represented an almost 100% increase to the 60,000 people who used heroin for the first time a decade earlier in 2006.
Studies revealed that in 2014, 119 million Americans were using prescription psychotherapeutic drugs, 97.5 million people were using pain relievers, and 39.3 million were using tranquilizers. It’s not to say that they were abusing it, but the risks exponentially increased. With opioids for instance, it takes only about five uses before an individual can become addicted.
Why is Heroin in America so Prevalent
This can be a tricky question but the obvious factors have to include the drastic steps taken to decrease pain medication prescriptions in recent years. People who were depending on pain medication and addicted were taken off of their medication and left to their own devices. This led to many people looking for these drugs on the street which can be a very pricey habit. Drugs like oxycodone are being sold on the streets at a dollar per milligram, leading many people to look for cheaper alternatives. That alternative is heroin. On top of this, drug dealers are cutting drugs with deadly medications like Fentanyl to allow them to make more money. This is leading to strings of overdoses across the country and has been killing people by the hundreds.
The Safe Injection Sites Experiment
The concept of a safe injection site is a touchy one to say the least. Its aim is to provide people addicted to heroin and other drugs with a safe refuge where they inject the substance under supervision. The facility has a steady supply of naloxone in case of drug overdose. Staff will also try to persuade people who come to the facility to seek addiction treatment.
This is the result of a 10-year study by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction published last year, which concluded that these drug consumption facilities will have drastic implications on public health and safety.
On one hand, these facilities are being accused of enabling the substance abuse instead of getting people help. On the other hand, advocates believe that providing people with a safe refuge will drastically cut down mortality rates and emergency room visits.
There are safe injection sites mushrooming all across the United States that are billed to be an alternative method to breaking heroin addiction. But do they work?
A joint study by Dr. Christy Sutherland, medical director of Portland Hotel Society in Vancouver, University of Alberta Associate Professor Michael R. Kolber, and Jennifer Ng, University of Alberta medical student, sought to answer that question.
They concluded that these safe injection sites are linked with lower mortality rates as they found out that there were “88 fewer overdose deaths” for every 100,000 population. The emergency room visits for drug overdose also dropped by 67%, alongside a decrease in HIV infection.
More and more cities are considering opening safe injection sites, which go by the harmless name: “Overdose Prevention Centers.” Among them are New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Denver.
Heroin in America: Not Your Typical User
We all know that heroin in America can affect the poorest communities but now the problem is sweeping the nation and nobody is safe. Lawyers, doctors, suburban parents and their children have all fell victim to heroin addiction. The old stereotype of homeless people or fringe culture users has fallen wayside and now the most unsuspecting people are falling victim to the grips of heroin addiction.
The Needle Exchange Program
This program has generated a lot of controversy because critics say it’s not solving the problem of heroin, but rather enabling people to continue their drug use. For proponents, however, the concept is harm reduction.
The link between drug addiction and HIV infection has been well-established. People who shoot up drugs are 28 times more likely to develop this auto-immune disease. Of the 11.7 million people worldwide who are shooting up drugs, 14% of them also contracted HIV. The United States is one of three countries—along with Russia and China—that account for half of the total people who inject drugs into their system.
The needle exchange program works, as proven from the French experience. In 2014, a study revealed that the needle exchange as a policy is a more cost-effective measure than treating HIV or hepatitis. Just by increasing the funding support to $50 million, the US would help avert 816 HIV infections.
In his personal testimony published in The Greater Hartford Harm Reduction Coalition, former drug-dependent Dwayne Patterson said that the needle exchange program does more than protect the individual from other associated diseases.
He said that drug dependents suffer the stigma where almost everybody in society looks down upon them. They’ve been called names, ostracized, and refused help. However, those who work in needle exchange programs are former dependents themselves so they can relate. It also sends a message that they are there to help but if you are not ready yet, here’s a clean needle so you can at least be safe.
However, 15 states have banned the program, which tells you that it’s not widely accepted in the US yet. While the federal government supports the program, that support is mere lip service because there’s no budget allocated for its dissemination. Heroin in America is a problem but is allowing injection sites and needle exchange programs a viable cure for the problem?
Needle exchange programs don’t exist in a vacuum. These are not mere facilities where people give others clean syringes. They are gateways to recovery because drug dependents who go there will have access to opiate addiction treatment if they so desire. They can also get free tests to determine if they are still clean or not.
These are safe havens where you can go without risk of judgment or stigma. As recovering addicts will tell you, the recognition of their humanity can be a powerful thing.
Treatment for Heroin Addiction
According to CDC, 11,000 people were hospitalized in 2014 due to heroin-related emergencies. Treatment is a necessity. Withdrawal symptoms will occur within 6 – 12 hours after the last use, and patients experience symptoms for three to four days.
Treatment for heroin and opiate addiction will include detox in order to manage the symptoms. After which, patients undergo behavioral therapies in conjunction with medication, to manage the addiction. In some instances, holistic methods are employed to further help patients cope with the cravings once they leave the comforts of the rehab center.
Can we Put an End to Heroin in America
It may take years or even decades to end the heroin epidemic but standing still is no solution. We must be dilligent in helping end this addiction before it gets even worse. If you are someone you care for is using heroin let them know there is hope for a better future. Heroin in America does not have to remain a problem for years to come if we band together and help our neighbors.