Why heroin is back

Jul 18, 2014

Heroin is the latest drug that is wreaking havoc in central and northern New York, and around the country. At a recent WRVO community health forum, WRVO a panel of regional experts discussed why so many people are becoming addicted to heroin and other opiates and what can be done about it.

As Brad Finn, the executive director of the Prevention Network in Syracuse says, heroin has always been around.

“Heroin when it came back recently is much more pure and it’s much less expensive than ever before.”

But deaths from heroin overdoses -- whether it was actor Philip Seymour Hoffman or SUNY Oswego students -- have recently made headlines across the nation and in this region. And that's because heroin, which many people thought went out of style along with disco, is back with a vengeance. But why?

“It goes back 10-15 years when we were possibly under treating pain, and for people who needed it, there was a huge movement in the medical community to be more compassionate, to prescribe pain medication much more freely," said Martin. "And there was such a surge in people that were trying to do right thing, that actually the numbers of prescriptions were just humongous."

Dr. Laura Martin specializes in addiction treatment, and those painkillers she's talking about are opiate based -- like oxycodone, Oxycontin and Percoset.

“The United States has about 4.6 percent of the world’s population. We consume 95 percent of the world's oxycodone. I don’t think we 95 percent more pain,” said Martin.

And as she says, people tend to think prescriptions are safe. But these painkillers are highly addictive; and when the prescription runs out, some people turn to another opiate-based drug -- heroin. That's what happened to Ashley.

“I sometimes looking back now wonder if heroin ever been part of life or my story had I not gotten there via, through pain medication. You know your brain changes and I didn’t realize what was really happening to me,” said Ashley.

Ashley became addicted to heroin, but was able to get clean and now works as a certified drug counselor. (She asked WRVO not to use her last name.)

As Dr. Martin elaborates, your brain changes with the first dose, and some people's addiction begins with the first time they use.

No one knows why some people are predisposed to narcotic addiction. But today's heroin epidemic seems not to discriminate.

“We're seeing younger, it crosses all socio-economics, there isn’t one community that isn’t impacted. There’s no safe place to raise your children. We’re talking suburbs, we’re talking rural, we’re talking people who have high means or have no means,” said Finn.

“Heroin is not a social drug, people generally tend to use it in isolation, it’s not something you’re going go out and use in a bar setting, for example,” said Ashley. “ The tendency to isolate becomes much more great.”

But Ashley, Finn and Martin all say addicts do have a great impact on their social networks, particularly their families. All three experts agree that it's important for any addict who wants help to get counseling or go to a 12-step program. And that's recommended for their family, too -- whether or not the addict is ready for help themselves.

Communities are also coming together to try to address this problem. Remarkably, Finn says the fact that bath salts swept through this area just a couple years ago helped prepare law enforcement, the medical community and addiction specialists to deal with heroin.

“So when the opiate epidemic hit we had a lot of resources in place. It may sound like we were caught off guard, and to some degree we were, just like with bath salts, just like we were when methamphetamine It's like a whack-a-mole game we play,” said Finn.

And while there are medications that can help people come off heroin, all three experts the mental side of addiction has to be treated.

“The focus of every treatment has to be the counseling. That’s what does the good and helps you to change the way you think,” said Martin.

And they agree that the key is not to let addiction be a problem that's shrouded in secrecy and swept under the rug.

“Talking about it’s not going to make it worse, you’re already living it. Talking about it is going to bring you help,” said Ashley.