THE OPIATE ADDICTION EPIDEMIC AND THE RISE IN HEROIN ABUSE. If I told you that 2 million people were in the grip of addiction, nearly every one of you would nod your heads and agree that those numbers sound staggering and are probably right on target. But that’s not exactly accurate. The fact is that according to Federal statistics, upwards of 2 million people are currently in the grip of Opiate Addiction and more than 12 million Americans admit to abusing Opiates. Every 19 minutes, someone dies from a prescription painkiller overdose. In fact, the number of painkiller overdose deaths now exceeds the number of deaths from heroin and cocaine combined. There is just so much of it out there. Because of the rising numbers of use, addiction, overdose and deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have classified prescription painkiller abuse as an epidemic.
Were Opiates at these epidemic levels when I was using them? Actually, no. I was having my own personal opiate epidemic at home as I spiraled out of control abusing prescription painkillers over the course of several years. I started out taking them for a legitimate, yet minor, pain issue, was hooked from Day 1 and ended up taking upwards of 30 Vicodin a day just to feel “normal”. I am one of those people who seems to be addicted to “more” and I pursued that warm, fuzzy feeling that I obtained from that first pain pill until it almost killed me. This is what opiate addiction does, and so much more.
So, just what is an opiate for those who aren’t in the know? They can be one of two things and in the end, give the same effect and the same results. Opiates can be natural or synthetic. Opiates by definition are considered to be the natural alkaloids found in the resin of the opium poppy plant. However, some definitions of opiates include the semi-synthetic substances that are directly derived from the opium poppy as well. As such, natural opiates include opium, morphine, and codeine. Other substances that are man-made
are called Opioids. These are most used to treat chronic pain and include Vicodin, Oxycodone, Demerol and Dilaudid. In the end, they are all usually referred to as Opiates and are all highly addictive.
One of the keys to understanding Opiate Addition is to learn exactly what these substances are doing to and for the user aside from their medicinal pain-relieving properties. Most or many people are looking for or appreciate an escape from reality and whatever it is that they feel is “pulling them down in life”. I know I did. It may be that they don’t feel they fit in, aren’t being treated fairly – it really doesn’t matter. Opiates briefly stimulate the higher centers of the brain, giving the user an immediate “rush” of pleasure. The drug also depresses the central nervous system, bringing on a deep feeling of happiness. You may feel at peace with the world and forget about pain, depression, and even that you were hungry. It is a nearly irresistible feeling to someone that has been searching for some sort of “relief”, and not just physical relief. There is much more going on here, however.
Opiates work in the central nervous system as a CNS depressant. While prescribed to treat pain, they do so by affecting the chemical pathway in the brain known as the dopamine pathway. Dopamine is the natural chemical in the brain that prepares us to experience good things like pleasure and a sense of well-being. This is one of the most important things you can learn about Opiates: the fact that opiates “resemble natural chemicals” that bind to neurotransmitters in the brain. What this means is that the body is already capable of producing these “feel good” chemicals in the brain to bind to its opiate receptors. Our brains are naturally capable of calling forth feelings of pleasure, contentment, relaxation and even pain relief. However, once we start putting something unnatural into the mix and bombarding our system with synthetic happiness, the body and brain forget that it’s capable of doing this on its own and becomes dependent upon the unnatural solution for those same feelings. A solution that in time is going to stop working anyway. What we’re doing with opiates is re-wiring our brains and that is a scary proposition.
Use of opiates for a legitimate pain issue or a one-time experiment can turn into abuse over an extended period of time or in the blink of an eye. That feeling of “relief” that I talked about when using the drugs isn’t uncommon and generally makes the user want to try them again and soon. Opiate addiction causes users to have a strong need for persistent, repeated use of the drug. This need is known as craving. Finally, attempts to stop using the drug lead to significant and painful physical symptoms called withdrawal. I remember both too well and don’t ever want to go back to those days of craving drugs, having to use them just to feel “normal” and being constantly terrified of withdrawal symptoms setting in.
One of the most disturbing and tragic trends with respect to Opiate Addiction is the recent rise in heroin abuse in this country. The number of Americans using the drug has increased by nearly 50 percent in the past decade, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA). While I think it could have been foreseen, this probably could not have been avoided simply due to market conditions and the illegal nature of the drug. The rise in heroin use and abuse is due almost entirely to the crackdown in recent years in prescription opiate abuse. In fact, data shows that 80 percent of heroin users started with prescription painkillers.
While many painkiller addicts start out thinking of heroin as a
low class drug that they would never touch, the reality is that they are already addicted to a form of it. With new regulations and law enforcement making access to these drugs much more difficult, users are being driven to another opiate that happens
to be cheaper, more powerful and infinitely more destructive. Always ready to oblige our hunger (basic economics), floods of cheap heroin continue to enter the country from Mexico and South America. Sometimes it takes the death of celebrity to bring the message home. After being sober for two decades, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman revealed last year that he relapsed with heroin after first taking prescription painkillers. He was found dead of a drug overdose on February 2, 2014, surrounded by over 60 bags of heroin. The fact is that heroin addiction is changing rapidly in this country, both geographically and demographically. When we think of painkiller addicts now, many times we think of a housewife, professional, suburban teenager and even the occasional retiree. Well, take that mental picture and apply it to heroin addiction.
While we are certainly in a mess, I have found in my recovery that pointing fingers doesn’t do much good. However, in the case of opiate addiction there are some who need to take responsibility for past, ongoing and future actions. These entities include big pharma, prescribing physicians, and even the FDA. While the FDA has responsibly just announced that they are moving to re-classify current hydrocodone products, such as Vicodin, to Schedule II narcotics, it also has some explaining to do. In just this past month, a new opiate drug has hit the market that has massive potential for abuse. Called Zohydro, this pure-hydrocodone capsule can pack the punch of 5 to 10 Vicodin in just one dose and has no mechanisms whatsoever to prevent abuse. There are numerous campaigns underway to try to convince the FDA to pull it from the marketplace but as of right now, it’s out there.
For those in the grip of opiate addiction, or who have a loved one in its grasp, there is hope. I have been clean and sober for over 12 years and have no desire to use or abuse drugs. It took a lot of pain for me to become willing to do something about my situation but recovery is absolutely possible from opiate addiction and it is happening all around us on a daily basis. What seems to be a hopeless situation when in its grip can really be just the end of a nightmare and the beginning to a new and wonderful life – free from opiates.
Taite Adams is the author of the successful book “Opiate Addiction – The Painkiller Addiction Epidemic, Heroin Addiction and the Way Out” published by Rapid Response Press. “Opiate Addiction” describes in detail how opiates work, their history, opiate addiction, and pathways to recovery. It has been termed invaluable as a resource for those addicted their families, professionals and people in recovery. Taite has several other recovery-related books and is available for interviews and presentations. Contact Taite at