Heroin: A Rising Teen Fad

The illicit drug heroin has been in America for well over a century and has been associated with crime, poverty, and inner-city neighborhoods for decades. But heroin addiction, on the rise from the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast, is now claiming a new set of victims: teens and adults in the suburbs.

What Is it?

Heroin is a drug processed from morphine. Like other painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin, morphine is derived from the opium poppy. The drug is usually sold in a powder form or as a tar-like substance and can be white, brown, or nearly black in color.


Heroin is not a new drug. Like other opium derivatives, it can trace its history to opium, a drug found in the opium poppy. Opium has been used both for medicinal and recreational purposes for hundreds of years. In 1830, opium was refined into morphine, an effective painkiller. It didn’t take long, however, for widespread and uninhibited morphine use to lead to a nationwide addiction problem. Morphine addiction was a problem in Europe as well, and in 1874 German chemists came up with a drug to treat it: heroin. By the time the dangers of heroin were recognized and the government initiated the Dangerous Drug Act in 1920, it was too late. More than 200,000 people were already addicted to the drug.  That number has only grown since.

 How it’s used

Heroin can be snorted or injected intravenously. IV injection is the most popular and riskiest method.


The effects of heroin are similar to the side effects of prescription pain medications: –        Drowsiness –        Respiratory inhibition –        Nausea –        Constricted pupils


Heroin is a dangerous alternative to opioid painkillers.  Among its many dangers are: –        Impurity: A notoriously impure substance, heroin often contains other drugs or substances. The drug’s potency also varies widely. –        Diseases: Shared needle use for IV injection leads to an increases in infectious diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis. –        Addiction: According to the DEA, heroin acts faster than any other opiate drug and is highly addictive. –        Tolerance: As with opiate painkillers, heroin users develop a tolerance very quickly, leading them to take higher doses to achieve the same effect.

The Prescription Pill Link

“It’s hard to talk about the heroin problem without talking about the prescription drug problem.” –        Rafael Lemaitre, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy  For many users, heroin is the next-best thing to the prescription pills they became addicted to in the first place. Cheaper and more widely available, heroin can be an attractive alternative for a student who loses access to prescribed drugs. But the black market surrounding heroin is very different from illegally sold prescription pills. Unlike prescription pills, heroin is not widely available in a pure, consistently measured form. Heroin is often impure and can come from just about anywhere. One mass shipment of bad heroin can cause a huge increase in overdoses and hospital visits.


–        According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of all users admitting to chronic painkiller abuse dropped from about 5.1 million in 2010 to about 4.5 million in 2011. Of these, the number of teens admitting to chronic painkiller abuse dropped from the record high of 1.6 million in 2006 to 1.2 million in 2011. –        Meanwhile, the same survey reports that the number of heroin users rose from 119,000 in 2003 to 281,000 in 2011. –        Surges in heroin use have been reported in 30 of the 39 states that reported to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 2011. In some communities, heroin use is rising faster than any other hard street drug, including meth and cocaine. –        While prescription pills can cost more than $80 per pill, a dose of heroin only costs around $10. Heroin is a dangerous opiate drug that seems to have come full circle in its history. Originally developed to treat an opiate painkiller addiction, it is now a popular alternative to a different group of opiate painkillers. Heroin’s sudden surge in popularity, especially among suburban teens and young adults who are first-time users, has led to an increase of overdoses and addiction highlighting the need for effective heroin addiction treatment. While the slight drop in prescription pill abuse rates is a welcome trend, the parallel rise in heroin abuse is very concerning and shows that prescription painkillers are now the nation’s newest, and perhaps most dangerous, gateway drug.

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