Heroin Addiction is an Urgent Health Crisis

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Recently, awareness has been building about the increasing use of heroin – and the increasing number of overdoses and deaths from it – especially since the tragic death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in February 2014 from an overdose of heroin and other drugs. In March 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder released a video statement calling increased heroin use, and especially a sharp rise in overdoses from the drug, “an urgent and growing public health crisis.”

Heroin use has been on the rise in recent years, and federal data shows a 79 percent increase in heroin use between 2007 and 2012. The increase in the use of this dangerous and illegal drug is often linked to the abuse of prescription painkillers, particularly opioid-based painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin. The same data demonstrating the sharp rise in heroin abuse between 2007 and 2012 also indicates that over 80 percent of first-time heroin users previously abused prescription drugs.

To combat the issue of rising heroin use, Holder called for both strong law enforcement and legal action and for an increase in programs to prevent and treat both heroin addiction and addiction to other opiates, especially painkillers. Federal statistics show that abuse of legal painkillers causes more deaths every year than heroin, demonstrating that the abuse of opiate drugs is a much broader problem than that posed only by heroin.

The government has recognized that prescription painkiller abuse is a problem, although in a perverse way, government efforts to crack down on prescription drug abuse may have contributed to the increase in heroin abuse. In shutting down so-called “pill mills” that produced Oxycontin and other opiates and by prosecuting doctors who aided individuals in getting prescriptions for painkillers, federal actions taken to reduce prescription drug abuse appear to have made heroin a more attractive alternative for many individuals, being both cheaper and easier to acquire. Such unintended consequences of government efforts to fight prescription drug abuse show how complex a problem preventing drug abuse can be.

As part of the current response to opioid drug abuse, Holder outlined several aspects of the current government strategy. One is to limit the availability of heroin and other opioid drugs by pursuing production and distribution at all points of the supply chain. An example of this in action is a more than 300 percent increase in quantities of heroin seized on the southwest border of the United States between 2008 and 2013. Officials are also still working to prevent prescription opioids from getting into the hands of drug abusers.

Holder also said that officials are working with doctors, police and others to increase the number of prevention and treatment programs available to people suffering from opioid addiction. By raising awareness, prevention programs may help keep individuals from ever suffering the devastating consequences of addiction. Improved and expanded treatment programs can save lives, assisting people in the often difficult process of recovering from such addictions. While the DEA and other federal law enforcement agencies do all they can to reduce the availability of illegal drugs, as long as any such drugs are available, there will be a need for a multifaceted approach to fighting them. Giving people the information and tools they need to avoid addiction or to recover from addiction are vital parts of this process

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