For years, drug addiction advocacy groups have warned there was a growing epidemic in the U.S. that would only get worse if lawmakers failed to pay attention. Specifically, the concern for many was that heroin was becoming more and more appealing to teenagers — many of whom were overdosing and dying.
Nationwide, heroin deaths increased 45 percent between 1999 and 2010.
In 2002, 166,000 Americans reported using the drug, but in 2012, 335,000 Americans said they had used heroin in the past year. But according to Michael’s House, a rehab facility for recovering heroin addicts, the average age of heroin users in the U.S. is currently 21 years old.
Heroin use has become so problematic in some states such as Vermont that the state’s Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted much of his State of the State address to discuss the use of the drug in the state.
Unlike the heroin of yesteryear, which required a needle, users nowadays can buy a powder-filled capsule that can be broken open and snorted — for just $10.
Part of the attraction to heroin for many teens is the price and ease of ingesting the drug.
Unlike the heroin of yesteryear, which required the use of a needle, users nowadays can buy a button — a powder-filled capsule that can be broken open and snorted — for just $10. And the drug is widely available.
And instead of buying from a dealer in an alley, teens can purchase buttons from people on varsity sports teams, Ivy League campuses and in suburban neighborhoods.
Addiction fueled by pain pills
What’s even more terrifying for some such as Dan Duncan, associate executive director at St. Louis’s National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, is that most heroin users’ addiction starts with the use of pain pills.
According to Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were 210 million prescriptions for opiate medications written in 2011 alone in a country with 312 million people. But since the pills are so expensive on the black market, many turn to a cheaper alternative like heroin, which is a painkiller.
Andrew Jones’ family knows this to be true all too well. Jones was in his sophomore year of college when he had his first experience with an opiate. Though Jones was always someone who discouraged drug use, including marijuana, Jones became addicted to prescription painkillers after he had to take them for a virus that damaged his pancreas, broke his hand and had his wisdom teeth removed.
“He would steal them, he would buy them, he would find them wherever he could,” said Jones’ friend Katie Gerstenkorn. “He stole painkillers from me, actually.”
Although experts say it takes months or longer to become truly habituated to heroin, Jones’ friends and family say that after he was given a capsule of heroin at a party, he became hooked.
“He couldn’t get away from the drug,” said his mom, Pam. “It’s a hunger, it’s a thirst. You throw all your morals out the window.”
Jones eventually began stealing money from his roommates so he could buy more heroin. He went to rehab, was released –then overdosed, and then went back to rehab.
His family and friends said they thought he was going to overcome his addiction, but soon Jones overdosed and died at the age of 23.
Jones’ story is tragic, and drug addiction experts say that his is a typical story. Duncan said that in 2008 the NCADA saw a spike in the number of people calling the organization’s help line, and Duncan says most of those calls were specifically about helping teens.
“It became clear that this was a problem in some of the best high schools in the area,” he said. “Public, private, most of them,” .
St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch added that what he found most startling about the surge in deaths from heroin overdoses was the average age of the users.
“Historically the age for most heroin deaths has been in the 40-to-45 range,” Fitch said. “But now the average age is between 18 and 25.”
And as “Emily” told TeenVogue, she started using heroin at the age of 14 after joining the varsity cheerleading squad at her school. By the age of 15, Emily says she was a regular user, but she was able to hide her addiction by getting good grades and staying out of trouble.
“It was like I was leading a double life,” she said. “I thought, maybe this is my little secret, and it’s not as bad as everyone says it is.”
Emily says at first she only used the drug during the weekend, which she got from a friend of a friend’s 30-year-old brother. She said he gave her the drug for free and then began to pressure her to have sex with him, which she eventually agreed to.
“I slept with him because I felt like he was giving something to me, so I had to give something to him,” she said.
Soon Emily was skipping school, decided to not try out for the cheerleading squad, and began to use heroin on a daily basis. Emily said it wasn’t until a friend of hers expressed an interest in trying the drug on her 16th birthday that she realized heroin was a drug many other teens were using as well.
During the next two years Emily went to rehab six times, overdosed twice, and attended 12-step meetings, but she continued to use the drug. But then she says something in her brain clicked.
“I was willing to go to any length to get high, and then it became clear that I needed to go to any length to get sober,” she said. “I had to change every single thing in my life, which was terrifying. But when the pain of staying the same was greater than the pain of change, that’s when I knew I really had to do something.”
“We can’t arrest our way out of this”
In an interview with the PBS NewsHour earlier this month, Shumlin said that since 2000, there has been a 770-percent increase in the number of people seeking treatment for opiate addictions.
“What started as an OxyContin and prescription drug addiction problem in this state has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis,” he said. “Last year, we had nearly double the number of deaths in Vermont from heroin overdose as the previous year.”
While Shumlin says that the heroin epidemic is by no means more serious than the problem that is occurring in other states, he said the difference is that “I’m willing to confront it and, as governor, take it on head on. …
“We have lost the war on drugs,” he added. “The notion that we can arrest our way out of this problem is yesterday’s theory … As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the real battles that we’re facing that we have got to win. And we have got to do that by changing the discussion and changing the policy, so that we say that what heroin addicts and folks that are addicted to opiates are facing is a public health issue, not a crime issue. And we have got to be willing to fight it from that vantage point.”
Dr. Gabor Maté concurred. He told Vice that after helping many heroin addicts find sobriety, he agrees that our current prevention and recovery methods are failing, and says we need to reconsider what causes an addiction and change our approach in how we help addicts.
He said part of ending this epidemic is figuring out why kids are taking heroin, which he says is the strongest pain reliever known to medical professionals, and relieves physical and emotional pain. Maté says the real question is not why is there a heroin epidemic, but why is there so much pain among young people today?
Maté explained that some children are traumatized and abused during their childhood, which is why they turn to drugs like heroin. The other reason is that there are people who are not getting their emotional needs met and are indirectly abused.
“Their parents are too busy, too stressed, too distracted, too depressed, too overwhelmed themselves to give them what they need,” he said. “So children grow up with a sense of emotional lack and emptiness, fear, and distress. Heroin partially soothes that pain and that distress.”
Maté went on to explain that people are continuing to use drugs such as alcohol and heroin despite all of the warnings, and adds that part of the reason so many young people die is that rehab and addiction programs appear to be ineffective and unsuccessful for the most part.
He pointed to actor Cory Monteith as an example, and said the actor, who died of a heroin overdose last year, repeatedly went to rehab since the age of 19. He died when he was 31.
“Addiction is not the problem,” Maté said. “Addiction is the addict’s attempt to solve a problem.”