DEA Confirms Heroin Use On the Rise; Overdose Deaths Soaring

DEA Confirms Heroin Use On the Rise; Overdose Deaths Soaring

The threat to the nation from heroin is serious and has been increasing since 2007, says a report from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). But in many communities across the nation, you don't need official DEA reports to know what's going on, because it's happening right under your nose. Historically, heroin has always been the scourge of inner-city minorities. But in the last few years it's begun to take over small-town, white, middle-class America. And with devastating results. Heroin abuse almost always follows prescription opioid painkiller abuse and dependence, says the DEA. And today it's the fastest-growing and deadliest drug of abuse in the country, causing more deaths today than at any time in the past decade. As for seeing it first hand, a prime example could be Huntington, W.Va., where citizens and officials have been on a roller-coaster ride with drug violence and deaths for over a decade.

Ten years ago, it was crack cocaine and teenagers being shot down in the streets. Today, with 30 heroin overdose deaths already this year and many more expected, Huntington and the entire Cabell County, W.Va. region serves as a microcosm of what's happening in similar communities all across America. In 2005, after four area teenagers were mercilessly gunned down on the front lawn of a house in Huntington's Fairfield West neighborhood, there was "a public outcry and a sense of mourning infused with a general sense of hopelessness," reported the Huntington Herald-Dispatch recently. "Then there was galvanizing, public scrutiny and organized effort for change." The community got itself together and responded with a multi-dimensional program that successfully dealt with the dangerous crack cocaine problem that was behind the shooting. For a few short years, things were relatively quiet and safe in Huntington. But it didn't last. "A decade later," the newspaper reported last week, "there is no official ending to the story." Although some acknowledge that much has been done, the paper said, many others realize that "with each problem that gets stamped out, the base problem of a flourishing drug trade in Huntington remains."

Heroin abuse almost always starts with prescription painkillers

The DEA says that most heroin users begin by abusing prescription opioids such as OxyContin and then move on to heroin. The threat is particularly high in the Northeast and Midwest regions, it said. But the problem is spreading from cities into towns and even rural areas everywhere. Many users become addicted to opioid medications originally prescribed for a legitimate medical purpose, the DEA says. And a recent study found that "four out of five recent new heroin users had previously abused prescription pain relievers." "Heroin is available in larger quantities, used by a larger number of people and is causing an increasing number of overdose deaths," the DEA says in its annual National Heroin Threat Assessment report. "In 2013, 8,620 Americans died from heroin-related overdoses, nearly triple the number in 2010." Attorney General Eric Holder recently targeted both heroin and prescription opioid painkillers, clearly a good idea since almost all heroin abuse today follows directly from painkiller abuse. In a video on the Justice Department's website, Holder said the rise in overdose deaths from heroin and prescription pain-killers is an "urgent public health crisis" and that heroin overdose deaths have increased by 45 percent since 2006. "When confronting the problem of substance abuse, it makes sense to focus attention on the most dangerous types of drugs. And right now, few substances are more lethal than prescription opiates and heroin," Holder said. The DEA says that more people are abusing other illicit drugs than heroin, but the "heroin user population is growing more quickly." The number of users almost doubled from 161,000 in 2007 to 289,000 in 2013, and deaths involving heroin have more than tripled, from 2,402 in 2007 to 8,260 in 2013.

Law enforcement ratcheting up its attention on heroin

The Justice Department will "combat the epidemic through a mix of enforcement and treatment efforts," Holder said. He also encouraged law enforcement agencies to train and equip their personnel with the life-saving, overdose-reversal drug naloxone. "DEA is targeting the cartels that produce and smuggle heroin into the U.S. and organized criminals that distribute this poison," said DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg. "We will continue to combat heroin trafficking to protect Americans from this severe and growing threat." From 2010 to through 2014, seizures of heroin have risen 81 percent, and the average volume of a heroin seizure has more than doubled. The DEA's heroin threat assessment report is based in part on surveys of more than 1,100 law enforcement agencies across the country. They were asked to identify the greatest drug threat in their areas, and a majority indicated heroin as the primary drug threat. The percentage of agencies reporting heroin as their greatest concern has steadily increased, rising more than 30 percent in the past 8 years. "Since 2011, DEA has opened more than 4,500 investigations related to heroin," Holder said. "They're on track to open many more. And as a result of these aggressive enforcement efforts, the amount of heroin seized along America's southwest border increased by more than 320 percent between 2008 and 2013."

Law enforcement won't solve the problem

Holder acknowledged that law enforcement alone won't solve the problem. He says that Justice is enlisting "a variety of partners - including doctors, educators, community leaders, and police officials - to increase our support for education, prevention and treatment." He said that the DEA will continue to educate pharmacists, doctors, and other health practitioners in the "identification and prevention of controlled substance diversion during the healthcare delivery process." In the Northern District of Ohio, for example, the U.S. Attorney convened a summit at the Cleveland Clinic, bringing together health and law enforcement professionals to address that area's 400-percent rise in heroin-related deaths, Holder said. "And nationwide, the Justice Department is supporting more than 2,600 specialty courts that connect over 120,000 people convicted of drug-related offenses with the services they need to avoid future drug use and rejoin their communities," he added. Meanwhile, back in Huntington, W.Va., where Cabell County has recorded a heroin overdose fatality rate nearly 13 times higher than the national average, "the deaths keep mounting and experts near and far struggle to explain why," says the Herald-Dispatch reporter Curtis Johnson. Nine deaths in 23 days has "underscored Huntington's plight this past January and spurred another citywide effort to treat addiction, one reminiscent of what happened after four local teenagers were killed in what is believed to be a drug-related shooting 10 years ago this month," Johnson said. The reporter quoted a university professor, who called "every pill abuser a potential heroin addict." The Mayor's Office of Drug Control Policy first noticed Huntington's escalated death rate in reviewing the out-of-town media reports, the Herald-Dispatch reported. Officials know certain characteristics, such as inconsistency of purity and varying tolerance levels among addicts. But pinpointing why so many addicts die at a higher rate in Huntington than elsewhere "is mere speculation." "I just don't have an answer," said Jim Johnson from the mayor's office. "We can talk about 'We think this,' or 'You think that,' or 'You think this,' but to sit and hold your hand up in court and say this is the reason - I don't know, and I don't think anybody knows."

Here at Novus, we are continuing to do our part in the ongoing struggle against prescription and illicit drugs, by providing the most effective medical opioid detox programs available anywhere. Our cutting edge medical detox protocols help prepare patients for far greater success in their quest to recapture their lives free from drugs.

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