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Patrick Cremcrem via Flickr

US heroin epidemic continues to strike in suburbia

Opioid addiction is seeping into American homes – here’s your lowdown on how the country’s drug market is getting weirder and weirder

More US kids than ever are OD-ing and it’s spiking at an unstoppable rate. What has been coined the "US Heroin Epidemic" is spreading like wildfire all over the States – seeping into American homes. It’s killing, and at a terrifyingly fast rate too. There are currently an estimated 600,000 heroin users in the United States, from all corners of the country. The culprit? Painkillers.


We spoke with research expert Dr Robert Lubran from SAMHSA who revealed to us that the two most prescribed painkillers in the US, Hydrocodine and Oxycodine, are also the two with the highest risk of addiction. This means that every time somebody just wants a pill to pop for their bad back, they are technically being offered a gateway drug. Patients who are prescribed these painkillers are provided with "informed consent", making it clear these prescriptions expose them if they are vulnerable. Clearly, this isn’t enough.

The problem doesn’t end here. Not only are doctors prescribing painkillers with a high risk of addiction, but they are overprescribing them too. Sam Quinones, author of Dreamland, a book about the rise in the use of heroin over the past 15 years spoke to Dazed. “Sometimes the doctor is an unethical doctor and is overprescribing, just for cash, but more commonly, they prescribe it for real pain, but they just prescribe far too many," he said.

Quinones went on to recall a personal account. “I had my appendix removed,” he told us. “I took two opioids in the hospital, but they sent me home with a bottle of sixty. There was no way I should have been prescribed that many pills.”

Dr Lubran explained how a national survey at SAMHSA would suggest that it is common practice among people to share their medication with families and friends, without thinking about the fact that one person’s tolerance for high risk painkillers are sometimes simply lower than others. In other words, just because you’re not addicted to your prescribed meds, doesn’t mean that your mate won’t be, and that they might be shooting up some black tar in the garden in a few months time.

“It is the first drug scourge in the history of the United States since WWII that did not start with mafias, drug traffickers and the underworld,” Quinones says. “This started because of doctors. To treat pain, we’ve created masses of addiction.”


Unsurprisingly, the extra pills that are being overprescribed have been fed into the black market, selling underground at a rate of $1-$2 a milligram. DEA officer Joseph H Moses DEA put it into perspective for us. "Say your habit is three pills per day, and you need 80mg of oxy at $80 a pill, that’s $240 a day.”

As addiction has spread, the demands for opioids has spiked and underground markets for prescription pills are more common than ever. Kids want their hit, and as long as doctors continue to send their patients home with quadruple the amount of Oxycodone than they should have, then they are going to get it. Users even moved on from taking the opioids orally, to shooting them up with needles to get a bigger, better rush. But then there’s the price you pay, and this is where heroin comes in.

“It’s almost like you’re talking about the same drug,” Quinones exclaimed down the phone. "All of these painkillers contain drugs called oxycodone, hydrocodone – synthetic derivatives – they are made out of stuff that is made from opium.” Heroin and opioid painkillers share a huge number of qualities: the same sense of euphoria, the same ease of discomfort, the same effect on the brain and then of course, horrendous withdrawal symptoms. Molecularly, they are very alike, and until now, nobody really viewed them in that way.


Accessibility means availability, and availability means that heroin addiction is everywhere. Long gone are the stereotypical views of addicts as the homeless people that sleep under the highway. Quinones confirmed this. "Heroin in America was always for the kids in New York City or East LA or Chicago. Now it’s all income levels, and all areas of the country.” We’re talking rural American, white suburbs. What is so terrifying about the epidemic is that addiction and death by overdose has become so common that it almost feels as though it has been normalised.

Moses told a similar story. “We are seeing heroin in places that we’ve not normally seen it. Going back eight years, if you would have asked me where are my heroin cities I would have said New York, Baltimore, Philly, Detroit, New Jersey. Now, it’s still there, but it has expanded into suburbia.”

In January 2015, there was an ongoing investigation of a HIV outbreak in outback Indiana. Opioid use and opioid addiction had been continually on the rise, with dirty needles being reused. Dr Lubran revealed dark stories he personally recalled, of groups that were sharing needles and were fully aware that those they shared with had HIV. They didn’t care, they just wanted the hit. “This phenomenon is the power of addiction,” he told us. The epidemic has reached corners of the US that have never in its time seen such issues with hard-drugs, to the point where now, heroin addiction is being treated as a public safety issues, rather than a criminal justice matter.


Prescription pill addiction is becoming a gateway to heroin use and a breeding-ground for HIV. This vicious cycle is producing more and more horror stories every day. Just last month WFMJ reported on 25-year-old Kayla Dempsey, who begged a judge to send her to jail so she could get clean. "There’s no help out there anymore. There’s a three-month waiting list for any rehab around here because of the heroin epidemic. It was faster to go to jail”. Al-Jazeera today reported on women giving up on their children and stealing to fund their habits. RT news reported 120 deaths a day and Moses at the DEA told us that there were exactly 22,757 deaths related to prescription drug overdose in 2013, with 71 per cent of that number including opioid painkillers. Heroin abuse rate sits at 19 times higher among those that previously used prescription opioids.

A multi-generational, all income, all ethnic issue, heroin addiction and overdose is sweeping the States. Lawmakers are contending to deal with the epidemic, introducing bills which require prescribers to complete training in the best pain management practitioners before gaining a licence, take-back days are being hosted and grants are being made, but further action needs to be taken. For now, it’s big, it’s accessible, and it’s fucking scary.