The New Heroin Epidemic in the United States

by on March 6, 2014

In recent months, two beloved and talented actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cory Monteith passed away due to drug overdoses, both of which involved heroin. Though the two men suffered from substance addictions in the past, their deaths brought light to the dangerous epidemic surfacing in the US today: mainstream heroin use and addiction.

What is heroin?

In 1874, C.R. Alder Wright synthesized heroin by adding two acetyl groups to the morphine molecule. Though heroin is an active drug by itself, it converts into morphine once in the human body. Morphine is a substance found in the opium poppy and is typically used to treat extreme pain in the medical context. Afghanistan reportedly produces the highest quantity of heroin the world, with South America, Mexico, and Southwest and Southeast Asia as other primary manufacturing locations.

When manufactured and used illegally, heroin may appear as a white powder that can be smoked, sniffed, or, once dissolved, injected with a needle. There are other forms of the drug that allow for intensified effects, such as black tar.

The High

Those who use heroin often describe a relaxing, warm, and euphoric experience. What makes heroin one of the most dangerous drugs out there is the user’s rapid tolerance development, forcing them to increase their dosage to obtain the same high. Heroin effects are said to come on quickly and remain for several hours.


Withdrawals from heroin have been described as extremely painful, and typically begin 6-12 hours following use. The symptoms are said to peak 1-3 days after use, and can last up to 7 or more for heavy users.

Symptoms will vary depending on the user’s experience with the drug, being worse for those who took a larger dose or several doses over a short period of time. Feelings of anxiety, depression, body aches, and pain sensitivity are all common symptoms of those going through heroin withdrawal, in addition to an overproduction in bodily fluids (i.e. runny nose, tears, sweat).

Why has heroin come into the mainstream recently?

Opioid painkillers have been around in the medical field for ages, but they weren’t often prescribed as pain medication for daily use. All that changed in the 1990s when pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma released OxyContin, a pill with a time-release function that allowed its pain-reducing effects to space out over a longer period of time.

According to director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, Andrew Kolodny, Purdue Pharma facilitated a “campaign focused on convincing doctors that they shouldn’t worry about addiction, so the medical community was taught to believe that addiction to opiates was relatively rare.” Thus, more physicians and primary care doctors began prescribing OxyContin frequently to patients suffering from back pain, headaches, and other common ailments. By 2001, sales of OxyContin exceeded $1 billion.

Not addictive?

It soon became clear that opioid pain killers, including OxyContin, were extremely addictive, contrary to what Purdue Pharma led the medical community to believe.

Betty Tully, a mother of two who had been employed consistently since she was 12, was prescribed OxyContin in January 2001 to aid her chronic back pain. Though her initial dose was 20 milligrams, she explains that she quickly required a higher dose to achieve the original effects.

“By June, I was an absolute zombie. I couldn’t work anymore, I couldn’t drive my car. I was calling [the doctor’s] office and screaming that I needed this medicine.”

After 11 months, Tully was on 280 milligrams of OxyContin per day and claims she refused to leave the house for fear of missing a dose and suffering from horrible withdrawal symptoms. Though it reportedly took her six years to get clean, Tully is now recovering and attempting to lead an opioid-free life.

Lying Around the House

With the upswing in common opioid pain prescription, more and more American households now have OxyContin and other similar drugs lying around the house, making it more accessible to teens and others who lack a doctor’s prescription. “We all became much more likely to have opioids in our homes, so it created a hazard,” says Kolodny.

Women’s College Hospital in Toronto’s medical director of substance use services, Meldon Kahan explains, “we have now this incredibly unusual public health crisis that’s essentially caused by physicians caused by the health care industry.”

On to Heroin

Let’s use Arielle as an example. As an 18-year-old, she would search her home for OxyContin bottles that her pharmacy worker cousin brought home and hid. After become quickly addicted and yearning for a more intense high, Arielle moved onto heroin, which, at $10 a bag, is significantly cheaper than OxyContin, which typically goes for $60-$80 per pill.

Arielle, now 26 and recovering at a substance abuse center, is from Long Island, one of the areas in United States where heroin addiction is most prevalent.

Heroin in Arizona

While AZ may not be one of the nation’s areas suffering most from heroin addiction, use of the substance is not uncommon across the state.

If you or someone you know has been charged with illegal possession of OxyContin or heroin in Arizona, the drug defense attorneys at JacksonWhite can help you find treatment and avoid incarceration. Get the help you need to recover from your addiction and move on from your mistakes—dial 480-818-9943 to schedule a free and private consultation with compassionate JacksonWhite drug crimes lawyer, Jeremy Geigle.

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