Tennessee’s Opiate Crisis

Heroin’s on the rise again in the U.S. And while it’s re-saturated some urban markets that witnessed major heroin waves in the 70s and 80s’, heroin’s begun creeping into different communities where opiate abuse was historically much lower than the national average. Tonight’s episode of Drugs, Inc. follows a team of drug cops who are hoping to strike a blow against the increasingly popular drug in Memphis, Tenn.

It’s pick-your-poison when it comes to substance use in America – marijuana usage is higher in the Northeast and West, alcohol abuse is more common in the Midwest, tobacco, on average, remains a stubbornly southern trait.

Tennessee’s stats are as bad or worse than national averages.  The state bucks geographic drug use trends: between 2007-2008, it was  one of the top ten in drug-use categories including past-month illicit drugs other than marijuana for those over 12. In 2010, Tennessee’s overdose death rate was above the national average.

But Tennessee’s real problem is prescription painkillers. According to the Times Free Press, from 2000 to 2010, oxycodone sales in the state increased more than 500 percent, and hydrocodone sales increased nearly 300 percent. Part of this rise is tied to an aging population, but as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found in 2007-2008, Tennessee’s individuals 26 and older were ranked first in America for use of non medical use of pain relievers.

Ripples of abuse can be seen elsewhere. In 2012, CNN reported on a Tennessee health department survey that found that one in three pregnant women in state treatment programs are addicted to prescription pain medication. Individual Tennessee hospitals have found this too – the number of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital doubled from 2010 to 2011.

Like many other states across the nation, Tennessee inadvertently helped create the perfect circumstances for heroin’s resurgence. According to USA Today, Tennessee physicians took heat for under-prescribing drugs to patients in the early 2000s’. In the decade that followed, doctors flooded the market with prescription pills, particularly painkillers. In response, state laws cut doctor shopping, the technique employed by some prescription painkiller users and dealers to obtain multiple prescriptions for, in half.

Of course, this vacuum created an ideal market for the prescription opiate’s natural substitute. State officials claim that drug cartels filled the void left by Oxycontin with heroin, which is much cheaper and in some places even easier to obtain (with the state’s new prescription database).

Tennessee combines overdose deaths from heroin and painkillers in state statistics, making it difficult to measure the recent wave’s scope and possible damage. But some less overreaching numbers nonetheless could be indicative of a rise in heroin abuse overall. The Washington Times wrote that from 2011 to 2013, there was an increase from 217 to 396 people seeking state-funded, non-private treatment for heroin. Local Tennessee radio station WCYB reported that the number of heroin incidents in the state had more than doubled between 2010 and 2013.

Despite the state’s success in cutting back on doctor shopping, in 2012 Tennessee was in the top three states in America for the ratio of prescriptions written per person, with about 18 prescriptions a year written for every individual in the state.

This worries some state officials and law enforcement, who still see fertile ground for opiate addiction in the near future.


  1. john quigley
    United States
    July 30, 2014, 8:56 pm

    Your show assumes that heroin due to the lack of cocaine availability. The truth is heroin use is on the rise due to the unavailability of prescription pain killers. Lets face it heroin has become easier to get than hydrocodone

  2. john quigley
    July 30, 2014, 8:57 pm

    Of course, this vacuum created an ideal market for the prescription opiate’s natural substitute. State officials claim that drug cartels filled the void left by Oxycontin with heroin, which is much cheaper and in some places even easier to obtain (with the state’s new prescription database). SPOT ON!!! Cocaine has nothing
    do with it

  3. Mr. Smith
    kent, ohio
    August 20, 2014, 7:04 am

    Due to the fact that people are selling their prescriptions, those of us that are in conic pain can’t get enough prescriptions to relieve the pain that we suffer from on a daily basis. Something has to be done to stop the abuse like more drug testing to weed out the abusers so that those of us that are truly suffering from cronic pain can get the help that we need to have some sort of relief from the agony that the pain causes us.

  4. Tom Maynard
    Tennessee, United States
    September 10, 2014, 8:43 pm

    I have had an unknown source of lower leg pain for 37 years. Over the past few years it has become worst (62 now) so that many nights I cannot sleep nor even relax during the early evening hours.

    I have a misaligned and arthritic neck from the Atlas and down 5 vertebrae. It becomes such that it becomes very difficult to move my neck, and results in severe frontal lobe headaches and pain down both sides of my neck. All of this makes it very challenging at best to perform computer tasks needed to make a living working on a computer Daily chiropractic adjustment’s will help relief this source of pain but I don’t have the hundreds of dollars a month to live this luxury.

    Last but certainly not least, I have been blessed with Crohns disease. This disease provides for daily discomfort and frequent flare ups that cause significant pain to the abdominal area.

    My family physician will no longer prescribe me a very moderate dose of hydrocodone (10 mgs) for daily relief of these painful ailments. So after completing nerve testing, sonograms for blood flow and an orthopedic examination all returning negative results, I continue onward with mild to severe lower leg pain with, constant neck pain and frequent abdominal pains with seriously, no Relief in sight.

    I have been sent to a Pain Client. The Pain Client takes a month or more before prescribing any relief medicine. I must fill out numerous forms and submit to drug testing ( I should become a pilot or rail engineer). I continue to wonder why I am now being treated as a “drug addict”, a “lesser citizen”, with the accompanying humiliation that was once reserved for a “Junkie” for lack of another term, instead of a “patient.”

    I have found no “over the counter” pain medicine, rubs (or new exotic prescription types that make you sleep excessively or too groggy to perform tasks that require continuous mental focus), without taking (OTC medicines) at least triple the dose, that has any relieving effect at all on any of the above.

    I only ask for some small dosage of medicine (e.g., 10 mg Hydrocodone or equivalent daily) to allow for a more peaceful and restful evening followed by a good night’s sleep. BUT, both the federal and state government really does know what’s best for; I.E., you will live in pain; you will lose your job, car and home; you will become homeless and live under a bridge. We cannot allow you to have any pain relief medicine. I have so much to look forward to in my golden years.