ST. LOUIS — A nationwide survey indicates that heroin users are attracted to the drug
not only for the “high” but because it is less expensive and easier to get than pre- scription painkillers.
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis published the survey’s results May 28 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
“In the past, heroin was a drug that introduced people to narcotics,” said principal investigator Theodore J. Cicero, PhD. of Washington University School of Medicine. “But what we’re seeing now is that most people using heroin begin with prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, Percocet or Vicodin, and only switch to heroin when their prescription drug habits get too expensive.”
Cicero and his colleagues analyzed data gathered from more than 150 drug treatment centers across the United States. More than 9,000 patients dependent on narcotic painkillers, or opioids, completed the surveys.
The researchers noted three key factors in the decision to use heroin: accessibility, in- cluding lower cost; enjoyment of the high; and the ease with which the drug could be snorted or injected.
“The price on the street for prescription painkillers, like OxyContin, got very expen- sive,” Cicero said. “It has sold for up to a dollar per milligram, so an 80 milligram tablet would cost $80. Meanwhile, they can get heroin for $10.”
In 2010, the often-abused pre- scription painkiller, OxyContin, was reformulated to make the pills more difficult to crush or dissolve. In a 2012 letter to The New England Journal of Medicine, Cicero noted that the reformulation had made it more difficult for users to snort or inject OxyContin but that the change had led some users to switch to other drugs, including heroin.
Today’s heroin users are older — 23, on average — when they first try the drug. Most got high with prescription drugs ac- quired illegally before switching to heroin. They tend to live in suburban or rural areas rather than the inner city, and more than 90 percent of the study subjects who began using hero- in in the past decade are white.
Previous research had re- ported that in the 1960s and 1970s, more than 80 percent of heroin users were young male minorities who lived in inner cities and began using the drug at about age 16.
Unfortunately, the problem with heroin is it’s the most powerful opiate ever created, and even if people think they are being careful, it can kill.