The War on Drugs is over the hill. And while the government has spent billions trying to curb addictions and bust up drug markets, official efforts have yielded few results. Last night’s episode of Drugs, Inc. followed the comeback of a substance that sparked the fiercest battles of the War on Drugs. Heroin use has been climbing since 2007, growing from 373,000 yearly users to 669,000 in 2012, according to Time and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Over the last decade, heroin abuse among first-time users has increased by almost 60 percent.
The trend is alarming, but as the collective understanding of heroin use and addiction has evolved, so too have the methods for combating abuse. Here’s what you need to know about the crisis:
Heroin’s finding its way into new markets
Drug tastes are fluid and oftentimes based on demand. So when federal and state governments cracked down on the abuse of pharmaceutical painkillers, heroin filled the void for users who were already addicted to legal opiates like OxyContin and Percocet. According to Rolling Stone, 77 percent of recent heroin users say they began using heroin after first trying prescription painkillers.
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This is a very different entry into the market, which some speculate has helped increase the drug’s spread to areas where it previously was much less popular. It was widely noted when Vermont governor Peter Shumlin dedicated his entire 2014 State of the State address to the heroin epidemic and the state’s plan to deal with the crisis. Since 2000, Vermont has seen a 770 percent increase in Heroin use. The spread of heroin to suburban and rural communities in relatively affluent states like Vermont is complicating long-held and oftentimes harmful stereotypes of the poor, inner-city heroin user.
It’s as cheap and available as ever
Drugs are inelastic goods for addicts, but that doesn’t mean that price isn’t a motivator in getting people hooked or allowing them to stay hooked for longer. This is exactly what’s happening with heroin. As pharmaceutical drugs became less easily available, an increased demand for heroin as a cheap substitute allowed drug cartels to flood the market. According to Time, the street price of an average bag of heroin in Chicago is now $10 for a drug which can be twice as pure as it used to be. This is a significant price drop from a decade ago, and much cheaper than the average price for illegally obtained OxyContin.
Heroin’s stronger than it used to be
Today, users can expect drugs which are twice or three times as pure as heroin that was popular during its peak in the 70s and 80s. Where the drug used to be cut so much that users had to inject to feel the effects, the more pure form can produce a high when smoked or snorted. This opens up the drug to more casual users, as these methods are easier and less stigmatized than injection.
Heroin’s causing other health problems
Heroin abuse has also led to other disturbing health trends. According to The Atlantic, heroin users are increasingly subject to horrible infections such as MRSA and other drug-resistant bacterial infections.
Some law enforcement and politicians are changing tactics
When buy-busts and drug stings yield cyclical results, some states are changin tactics. Embraced by the Justice Department, Vermont’s refocused the issue around public health rather than simple law enforcement. Along with a reevaluation of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, Shumlin aims to eliminate waiting lists for drug treatment and detox clinics. Shumlin and his allies also hope to change public perception of drug users – hoping the elimination of negative stereotypes will bring abusers out of the shadows and help them seek treatment.
Technology is also helping improve formerly costly and dire situations on the street. Officers nationwide have increased access to naloxone, a non-narcotic drug which can help reverse overdoses immediately.