Heroin Addiction in the United States
Heroin is an illegal, highly addictive drug. It is both the most abused and the most rapidly acting of the opiates. Heroin is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of certain varieties of poppy plants. It is typically sold as a white or brownish powder or as the black sticky substance known on the streets as “black tar heroin.” Although purer heroin is becoming more common, most street heroin is “cut” with other drugs or with substances such as sugar, starch, powdered milk, or quinine. Street heroin can also be cut with strychnine or other poisons. Because heroin abusers do not know the actual strength of the drug or its true contents, they are at risk of overdose or death. Heroin also poses special problems because of the transmission of HIV and other diseases that can occur from sharing needles or other injection equipment.
What is the scope of heroin use in the United States?
According to the 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, which may actually underestimate illicit opiate (heroin) use, an estimated 2.4 million people had used heroin at some time in their lives, and nearly 130,000 of them reported using it within the month preceding the survey. The survey report estimates that there were 81,000 new heroin users in 1997. A large proportion of these recent new users were smoking, snorting, or sniffing heroin, and most (87 percent) were under age 26. In 1992, only 61 percent were younger than 26.
The 1998 Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), which collects data on drug-related hospital emergency department (ED) episodes from 21 metropolitan areas, estimates that 14 percent of all drug-related ED episodes involved heroin. Even more alarming is the fact that between 1991 and 1996, heroin-related ED episodes more than doubled (from 35,898 to 73,846). Among youths aged 12 to 17, heroin-related episodes nearly quadrupled.
NIDA which provides information about the nature and patterns of drug use in 21 cities, reported in its December 1999 publication that heroin was mentioned most often as the primary drug of abuse in drug abuse treatment admissions in Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, Newark, New York, and San Francisco.
How is heroin used?
Heroin is usually injected, sniffed/snorted, or smoked. Typically, a heroin abuser may inject up to four times a day. Intravenous injection provides the greatest intensity and most rapid onset of euphoria (7 to 8 seconds), while intramuscular injection produces a relatively slow onset of euphoria (5 to 8 minutes). When heroin is sniffed or smoked, peak effects are usually felt within 10 to 15 minutes. Although smoking and sniffing heroin do not produce a “rush” as quickly or as intensely as intravenous injection, NIDA researchers have confirmed that all three forms of heroin administration are addictive.
Injection continues to be the predominant method of heroin use among addicted users seeking treatment; however, researchers have observed a shift in heroin use patterns, from injection to sniffing and smoking. In fact, sniffing/snorting heroin is now the most widely reported means of taking heroin among users admitted for drug treatment in Newark, Chicago, and New York.
With the shift in heroin abuse patterns comes an even more diverse group of users. Older users (over 30) continue to be one of the largest user groups in most national data. However, the increase continues in new, young users across the country who are being lured by inexpensive, high-purity heroin that can be sniffed or smoked instead of injected. Heroin has also been appearing in more affluent communities.
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