Anyone who has a friend or loved one who suffers from opiate abuse understands the turmoil and pain that both the addict and the addict’s family struggle through. After the sudden passing of A.J., his family wanted to do whatever they could to help the next addict and family seek help, understanding and support. The A.J. Butz Foundation, Inc. also seeks to spread knowledge and education about the risks of prescription drug use.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Narcotic painkillers are among the most popular prescription drugs in the U.S and the use of them quadrupled between 1999 and 2010. Every year, doctors write about 300 million prescriptions for painkillers. That is enough for every adult American to be medicated around the clock for a month. The availability of narcotic painkillers is rampant and presents dangers to anyone who is not properly monitored.
Opiate Related Deaths Are Rising:
The heroin market is flooded, prices are plummeting, and purity is up, treatment advocates and police say. As a growing number of opiate addicts run low on cash for pills, the demand for heroin skyrockets.
“This past year, for 2011-12, for the first time, heroin was the primary drug of use, surpassing alcohol for those seeking county-funded treatment,” said Diane Rosati, acting executive director of the Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission. “Heroin is not new to the suburbs. But it has become more available, less expensive and more acceptable.”
Heroin and opiate-related accidental drug deaths are also on the rise in Bucks County, from 56 in 2008 to 97 in 2011, the last full year of data available from the coroner’s office. In Montgomery County, those numbers have gone from 50 in 2008 to 79 in 2012. Those increases mirror state and national trends. And among those deaths are teens as young as 17.
Over the last two years, opioid-related overdose deaths exceeded the number of motor vehicle deaths in Pennsylvania, Rosati said. “Those are pretty startling statistics,” she said. “It’s really a wake-up.”
Nationally, drug overdose deaths increased for the 11th consecutive year in 2010, the latest year information was gathered, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control that was published in February’s Journal of the American Medical Association. The study shows that pharmaceuticals, especially opiates, are driving the hike. Painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin were the biggest problem, according to the study.
In the past five years, opiates have played a role in 365 drug deaths in Bucks County. And Oxycodone, by far the most commonly abused opioid painkiller, played a role in at least 15 accidental drug deaths in 2007, 21 in 2008, 22 in 2009, 27 in 2010, and 39 in 2011, according to the Bucks County coroner’s statistics.
The Council of Southeast Pennsylvania formed a Drug Overdose and Prevention and Education Advisory Board recently, responding to area drug use trends reflected in hospital and coroner reports.
The Drug Abuse Warning Network, also known as DAWN, tracks drug-related deaths investigated by medical examiners and coroners. DAWN found that Bucks County had 136 drug-related deaths in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available. “In that group, (opiates) were the number one cause of death, and more than half of those deaths were individuals under the age of 34,” according to the council. Another survey compiled by the Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission found that heroin was the most reported primary drug of use for hospital detoxification admissions in 2011-12 in Bucks.
Countywide, the number of Bucks County residents admitted to publicly funded addiction treatment centers for outpatient admissions for heroin addiction rose by more than 40 percent, up from 347 in 2008-09 to 536 in 2011-12, the last year for which data is available. The overall increase, which includes all levels of care for heroin and synthetic opiates, is up 54 percent, rising from 460 in 2008-09 to 645 in 2011-12.
“We’ve seen an upsurge nationwide as well as in Pennsylvania with heroin overdoses,” said Jonathan Duecker, special agent with the Bureau of Narcotics Investigation and Drug Control for the state’s Office of the Attorney General. “We believe that overdoses are occurring more frequently because heroin is purer and more available, and the people using heroin today often do not have an established pedigree for using heroin.”
Today’s heroin users likely started with prescription pills, which are perceived to be generally safe for consumption because it’s in a dosage regulated by law, he said. “Heroin on the street, however, is, of course, not regulated and there is a fine line between a dose of heroin being strong enough to bring back customers and too strong to kill some of those customers,” he said. Though more lethal, higher purity also translates into a bigger profit for dealers and a better quality of “high” for users, Duecker said. Higher purity level means the heroin can be smoked or snorted. That makes it a drug of choice for teens, in particular, who think it’s safe because they don’t need a needle. The higher potency makes it more addictive and easier to overdose.
So, a high school student who switches from pills to heroin will likely not know how pure the heroin is or whether it’s been adulterated or “cut” with toxic substances. Moreover, that user’s tolerance for heroin, especially heroin of high purity, may be low enough to cause the user to become unconscious or die, he said.
Why the rise in heroin?
Heroin is plentiful, according to drug enforcement officials. It makes its way into the suburbs through Philadelphia, which has become a major gateway for drugs being smuggled into the Northeast.
With a major port, a sprawling highway network and several airports nearby, the region has the infrastructure to support a booming market, said John Hamrick spokesman for the Philadelphia regional office of the Drug Enforcement Agency. The DEA’s latest quarterly report, he said, shows heroin continuing to increase in availability — especially in the suburbs — and ranges in purity from 40 percent to 90 percent.
The price for a gram of heroin ranges from $60 to $70, down from an average of $75 to $300 a gram more than a decade ago. Higher purity and lower prices can be blamed on a shorter journey from the poppy fields of South America to the streets of Philadelphia and its suburbs, he said. Hamrick said smugglers are finding more direct routes to the region, though air travel, car travel and shipping ports.
Philadelphia’s heroin supply then makes its way to Allentown, Scranton, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, coming primarily from Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations. “Mexican cartels have flooded the marketplace with heroin,” said Duecker. There is so much heroin in Philadelphia that a .03 ounce bag — essentially satisfying one hit (less than half a teaspoon) — can be purchased for less than $10, he said. Area teens, who initially picked up their habit in the suburbs, say prices rise the farther one gets from the city, costing $15 for the same amount in places like Levittown, Doylestown and Perkasie.
The suburbs, the agents say, are becoming a more lucrative market because of the high number of teens and young adults who can no longer afford to feed their addiction to prescription medicines — and are reluctant, at first, to go into the city. “Many suburbanites get their hands on (pills) first, get hooked and once the prescriptions are gone, they still need the high, which explains the increase in heroin use in the suburbs,” Hamrick said.
Heroin and other opiates are perceived by many users as less risky today than they were 20 years ago. “We’ve become accepting of things like OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet,” said Fialko, the prevention specialist with The Council of Southeast Pennsylvania Inc. “When a youth sees doctors give it to a parent for a bad back, he or she doesn’t believe a doctor would give out anything unsafe.” So kids abuse the drugs stolen from their parents’ medicine cabinet or bought on the street. They swallow as many pills as they need to get a high.
Television advertisements only exacerbate the acceptance of prescription medications, Fialko said. “We are the only country in the world that direct-markets prescription medications to consumers,” he said. “When we get a direct message that says they’re OK, we tend to trust them — sometimes too much, and we don’t read the fine print messages of how harmful these substances can be.” Whenever a drug’s perceived harm is low, the level of use will increase, Fialko said. “Heroin, in the 1980s, was perceived to be a killer drug,” he said. “Today, it’s more of a next-step drug, a choice that teens turn to once their supply of prescription opiates runs out.”
(For more facts and information, visit http://www.phillyburbs.com/news/local/herointalk/cheaper-purer-heroin-draws-more-bucks-montco-teens-into-its/article_b5f4e594-7c98-517a-a76b-d29ca43024aa.html.)