Heroin Addiction and Abuse

The recent opioid problem has transformed into a heroin epidemic, claiming more lives than at almost any other point in the drug’s long and storied history. What is heroin, and why is heroin addiction so prevalent? 


More About Heroin

What is Heroin?

It’s a highly addictive analgesic and central nervous system depressant that’s derived from the seed pod of the opium poppy. The first two major epidemics in the US occurred during the late 40s to mid-50s and in the 1970s after the end of the Vietnam War. Morphine is the base for heroin, and it was used as a potent battlefield pain reliever. Heroin was first distilled in 1874 and was manufactured, packaged, and sold by the Bayer Pharmaceutical Company from 1898 until it was re-classified and criminalized in the early 20th century.

The jump from recreational use to dependence and addiction is quick, and recovery is a life-long struggle for many. This may not be the first heroin epidemic to hit our country, but hopefully, with better education and access to treatment options, it will be the last.

What Does Heroin Look Like?

Heroin is usually made into a water-soluble powder that’s white or tan, but varieties such as the notorious and deadly Black Tar from Mexico can be dark brown and sludgy like resin. It’s manufactured by transforming the milk obtained from the seed pod into morphine, treating it, and cooking it down until it forms a thick, powdery paste.

It’s diluted and remixed numerous times along the supply chain with whatever kind of powder is on hand, including sugar, baby powder, and other drugs. That means the purity and strength can vary from batch to batch, making it even more dangerous. One of the darkest recent trends is the combination of heroin and fentanyl, a very potent opiate that’s up to 100 times the potency of heroin alone. Street names for heroin include boy, horse, smack, junk, skag, and the colorful monikers Chine White or Mexican Brown.

How is Heroin Used?

Not everyone who abuses heroin injects the drug. Many users snort heroin, especially in the beginning. For a while, it was used as a cost-effective “cut” for cocaine. It’s also common to smoke heroin with marijuana, either added to a joint or sprinkled on a bowl of the weed. However, injecting heroin, which is called “shooting up” in the street vernacular, is the most common way to use the drug. Many who are addicted find their way to the needle eventually. This has led to a concurrent rise in blood-borne infectious diseases like hepatitis and HIV.

Are you ready to get help?

If you’re ready to take the first step toward finding recovery, contact Stepping Stone Center for Recovery today. Our addiction specialist can answer any questions regarding our program and the treatment options that are available to you.


An Overview of the Heroin Epidemic

There are two possible causes for the current epidemic of heroin addiction. While the first two waves seemed to have their roots in the aftermath of war, the current uptick in abuse rates is occurring alongside the opioid epidemic. National heroin abuse statistics bear this out; 80 percent of those in treatment for heroin addiction began by abusing legal prescriptions for pain medications.

In the early 2000s, drug companies introduced a new crop of strong, opioid-based medications. Doctors were encouraged to prescribe them for pain management after accidents and to treat chronic pain disorders. Once the medical community realized there was a major problem with opioid addiction, dependent patients were cut off from their legal medications, and they turned to illegal ways to obtain drugs. This included practices like doctor shopping and diverting prescription meds from friends and family. Eventually, cheap, widely available heroin became the drug of choice for many.

The price and quantity of the drug made it easy to get and cost effective for dealers to use as an additive to cocaine. This led to a rise in overdose deaths from mixing the drugs and increased the number of heroin addicts. A combination of recreational users and patients transitioning from legally prescribed medications to heroin has swollen the ranks of people needing addiction treatment.

Heroin Abuse Statistics

How widespread is heroin addiction? One need only look at the statistics to find the answer. A a National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) conducted in 2016 found that approximately 948,000 people over the age of 12 used heroin the previous year. That’s up from 214,000 reported by the same agency in 2002. Admissions for treatment to overcome heroin use disorder rose from 11 percent in 2008 to nearly 26 percent just a few years later.

The demographics of heroin use have also changed. It was once considered an inner-city, urban problem, but now just as many of those seeking treatment come from suburbs and rural areas. There is no differentiation in social class, either, although poverty is a risk factor for abuse.

How to Tell if Someone is Using Heroin

There are two types of heroin abuser, those who are dependent on the drug and those who are addicted. That may sound like the same thing, and one often follows the other, but there are a few distinctions. Someone who is dependent on the drug builds up a tolerance to it and needs to take more in order to experience the same effect.

When someone is addicted to heroin, they develop an uncontrollable craving that leads them to seek out the drug regardless of any negative consequences. Dependence can sometimes be eliminated by gradually reducing the dosage until it’s no longer needed. Addiction requires detox and a rehabilitation program. Withdrawal symptoms, signs of use, and treatments overlap.

Some people are able to hide their dependence and lead functional lives. Others become hooked and lose everything when the addiction takes over. Observant friends, family members, and employers can detect heroin abuse by watching for a few signs. The symptoms can be physical and psychological, and they include:

  • Possessing paraphernalia like syringes, baggies, and pipes
  • Changes in behavior and habits, like hanging out with a different crowd
  • Avoiding old friends and family, becoming secretive
  • Losing money, jobs, and/or housing
  • Neglecting family, school, or work responsibilities
  • Strange marks on arms or between fingers and toes
  • Mood swings or personality changes

It’s possible to detect use when the withdrawal symptoms associated with addiction appear. These can include anxiety and depression; irritability; nausea, vomiting, and stomach cramps; profuse sweating; and diarrhea. Over the long-term, more serious symptoms like severe weight loss; skin ulcerations; and heart, liver, or respiratory distress develop. If the person’s lips begin to turn blue, they’re unresponsive, and their breathing is shallow, these are symptoms of overdose that require immediate medical attention.

Without treatment, chronic use leads to health problems. The possibility of death is included with every use, especially when heroin is mixed with other drugs.

Is Heroin Addiction Treatable?

Despite its deadly reputation and high relapse rates, heroin addiction is treatable with a comprehensive program. Everyone’s substance use story is personal, so an individualized approach to treatment in a supervised setting offers the best hope for lasting recovery.