Heroin: An American Epidemic

Heroin: An American Epidemic


It’s a drug that has coincided with twenty-first century American history, whether people realize it or not. In fact, heroin addicts are said to be the origin of the “junkie” stereotype, based on users’ addiction habits and withdrawal symptoms. Seducing its way into our language and pop culture, heroin has affected the United States right from our homes.

Regarded as a hard drug, people brush off their chances of encountering the substance, but as the numbers of opioid painkiller addictions turning into heroin addictions rises, the United States must face the hard truth: there is a heroin epidemic and it’s affecting the whole nation.

The Origin Story

Heroin is an opioid painkiller that is used a recreational drug for a euphoric effect. To produce heroin, it is synthesized from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seedpod of the Asian opium poppy plant.

Believe it or not, it used to be sold as an over-the-counter drug back in 1898, known by its chemical name: diacetylmorphine, by The Bayer Company of Germany. It was an attempt at producing a safer painkiller that would be less addictive than morphine and have fewer side effects.

The chemists accidentally synthesized diacetylmorphine, thinking it was a diluted form of morphine, and next thing everyone knew, heroin was placed in cough syrups and remedies for infant colic, sold over the counter in the United States up until the early 1900s. It was regarded as a strong medicine, a heroic drug—hence the name “heroin”—that absolved people from pain and let them sleep better.

But it would take only a few years to realize this drug hero was more of a drug villain, as physicians realized heroin was even more addictive than morphine.

Its Shapes and Forms

Heroin comes in three colors: white, brown, and black. Depending on where it was imported from, heroin will come in either a white or brown powder, or a sticky black substance known as “black tar heroin.”

There are various ways heroin can be taken: injected via a needle or syringe, inhaled by snorting/sniffing, or smoked. Each method will reach the brain quickly, producing a quick euphoric surge, sometimes referred to as a “rush.” Some users report that after or accompanied with the euphoric sensation, they’ll experience dry mouth, a warm flushing of the skin, heaviness of the extremities, and clouded mental functioning.

Once it hits the brain, heroin is converted back into morphine and bonds with opioid receptors, which are involved in the brain’s perception of pain and arousal, but which also processes critical life functions, such as blood pressure and respiration.

As an opioid drug, heroin is regarded as a sedative, which is why after the rush, users will go “on the nod,” a state wavering between wakefulness and drowsiness, much like someone who trying not to fall asleep. The “high” produces a “downer” effect and is regarded as a mellow embrace, manifesting a dangerous seduction for first-time users to repeat their actions in order to achieve the same effect, but repeated usage of heroin develops a tolerance in the body, needing larger dosages each time to produce the original experience.

Generally people who use heroin are not first-time drug users, which is the main cause for concern in the drug epidemic in the United States. Particularly for those who are addicted to prescription opioid painkillers, who are 40x more likely to convert to heroin, the allure of a cheaper and more easily attainable drug catches their attention and leads them down a dangerous path of addiction and tragedy.

An Alarming Epidemic on the Rise

In 2014, opioid-related deaths rose above 28,000, more than any year on record. Since trends in the 90s, opioid-related fatalities have quadrupled, marking prescription opioid painkillers and heroin as one of the largest drug epidemics in the United States today. Heroin-related deaths specifically jumped 39% since 2012, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

Regarded as mostly a white, middle class drug epidemic, researchers have found that 90% of first-time heroin users are racially classified as Non-Hispanic White from middle class or wealthy backgrounds. Since heroin is known for being cheap and plentiful, it marks the question for why this demographic would gravitate more towards heroin.

Well, of heroin addicts, 75% of them transitioned from an opioid painkiller addiction, which marks as evidence that the shift from prescription painkillers to heroin is an alarming trend that continues to grow, but which also shows the economic trends. Most painkiller addicts like the “money-saving” value of switching from expensive prescription painkillers to street-cheap heroin. Even those addicted to cocaine, another expensive drug, are 15x more likely to switch to heroin for the cost.

With the need to fight against heroin and opioid painkiller addiction rising, President Obama proposed $133 million in federal funds to combat the epidemic by expanding access for drug treatment and prevention programs. Heroin has become such a concern that even during the 2016 presidential campaigns, people are asking potential party candidates what their platform is on the drug epidemic and how will they go about solving it.

Politicians nowadays are arguing to tame down the aggressive arrests of drug addicts, a method the United States has been brutally known for since the beginning of the “War on Drugs” during the crack-cocaine epidemic in Reagan-era 1980s.

This has been welcomed, albeit with underlying frustration, from minority groups—particularly from African-American communities—who would like to see less prison sentences for people with substance diseases and instead more help to bring them back into healthy lifestyles again.

While there lies some racial truths about the United States paying more attention to heroin and opioid painkiller drug addiction now that it has moved from poor communities to middle class suburbia and wealthy towns, there is no denying that the substance abuse issue is rapidly growing at an alarming rate that could result in a generational nightmare.

Be More Afraid of Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use

Too many heroin users fuel their addiction because they are more afraid of withdrawal symptoms. Quitting any addiction is difficult, but heroin addiction requires clinical detoxing with medical supervision. Doing it alone could result in severe withdrawal symptoms and medical emergency.

In fact, some colloquial phrases used in modern conversation is said to come from heroin withdrawal symptoms, like “cold turkey” and “kicking the habit.” When a user stops using heroin, some of the first signs they’ll notice within a few hours after their last fix is that they’ll experience cold flashes that cause goosebumps to appear on the skin, hence “cold turkey.”

As a user detoxes their system, unprovoked body jerks, like kicking, might occur. Because heroin is a sedative drug, their body is normally sluggish and limp, but through detox, these responses begin to awaken again and trigger movements from the user involuntarily, thus “kicking the habit.”

But even with the difficult journey to recovery, none of this compares to the long-lasting effects of chronic heroin use.

There’s a whole list of long-term effects:

  • Infectious disease (e.g. HIV, hepatitis B and C)
  • Collapsed veins
  • Bacterial infections
  • Insomnia
  • Extreme constipation, as in not going for 1-2 or more weeks straight
  • Abscesses
  • Infection of heart lining and valves
  • Arthritis and other rheumatologic problems
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Long-term imbalances in neuronal and hormonal systems
  • Deterioration of white brain matter
  • Sexual dysfunction and irregular periods for men/women

The list goes on.

This doesn’t even consider relationships with friends and family being torn apart and destroyed completely, leaving users alone with their addiction to heroin.

And, of course, overdosing.

Every time heroin users go “on the nod” during a high, they teeter on and off the edge of their lives. The sedation that comes from heroin can be strong enough to put a user in a comatose state, repressing their breathing and heartbeat to a minimal breath/pulse or become nonexistent altogether. In just a few minutes, an overdose can kill a user and put them in a sleep they’ll never wake up from.

An End in Sight?

As long as there’s a drug to be addicted to, there will be those who fall victim to it.

While the United States battles this epidemic, the responsibility does not lie only on governmental shoulders, but on citizens’ action for change. With more awareness about heroin and prescription opioid painkiller addiction, more and more people can be prevented from entering this dangerous cycle.

This is an issue that has affected the American way of life, but even if the journey to recovery may be hard and scary to embark, this country can certainly start kicking the habit once and for all if we just try.

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