It Can Literally Happen to Anyone!
Heroin. Even the word is scary. But when you have seen those tell tale tracks on your son’s arm, that word becomes completely terrifying. I remember the first time I saw them; it was August 2010, and we were taking our son Sam, then age 21, to his first detox in a local hospital. He had just admitted to his father and me that he was addicted to prescription pain and anxiety pills, including Oxycontin and Xanax. We were in the car, and I looked down and saw those eerie red marks going up my beautiful son’s arm, and I felt physically ill. I questioned him, and he reluctantly nodded yes, he was dealing with heroin addiction too. How did this charming, intelligent, exuberant boy, who grew up in a traditional suburban Maryland neighborhood, right outside of Washington, D.C., played with his brother in our back yard, and loved animals, who was a cub scout, participated in local basketball leagues, and had dozens of friends, who attended his high school proms, went away to college, and basically lived the life of the typical suburban kid – how in the world did he become a heroin addict? At that point, I had no idea.
Unbeknownst to me, my son Sam was fairly representative of the new face of heroin addiction in this country. As CNN recently reported: “Today’s typical heroin addict starts using at 23, is more likely to live in the affluent suburbs and was likely unwittingly led to heroin through painkillers prescribed by his or her doctor.”[i]
A Growing National Epidemic
Maryland is just one of too many states that is witnessing an unprecedented increase in heroin addiction. In fact, deaths from heroin have become a national epidemic, and a national tragedy. And the problem getting worse – in fact it is growing exponentially. According to the National Institute on Drug Addiction (NIDA), from 2001 to 2013 the number of deaths from heroin use increased five times.[ii] The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) issued a frightening report in March of 2015, which states that from 2010 to 2013, in just three years, the death rate from heroin overdoses in the U.S. nearly tripled, and younger white males became the most common victims.[iii] Just in Maryland, according to the Maryland Department of Mental Health, deaths from heroin overdose increased by a dramatic 88 percent from 2011 and 2013.[iv]
Unfortunately these tragic heroin overdoses are only part of a much larger problem. In 2013, the total number of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. was 43,982, making them the top injury-related killer in our country. [v] Another shocking national statistic that illustrates the prevalence of this problem: there are now more people dying in this country from drug overdoses than from traffic accidents.[vi]
In addition to the frightening number of overdose deaths from heroin and other drugs, there are millions of active addicts, and their families, who are suffering from this scourge. SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) reports that in 2013 there were 6.9 million people in the U.S. actively addicted to illegal drugs.[vii] And millions more are on the way to becoming addicts. As of 2009, 23.9 million Americans age 12 or older had used illegal drugs in the previous month.[viii]
Why the Dramatic Increase in Heroin Use?
Many experts believe that the increase in heroin abuse is directly linked to efforts to address the abuse of prescription drugs, including opiate painkillers (such as Oxycontin, Vicodin and Percocet) and benzodiazepines (antianxiety and sleep medications such as Xanax and Valium). In the last few years, federal, state and local authorities have attempted to reduce the availability of illegal prescription drugs by cracking down on pill mills and requiring pharmaceutical companies to reformulate prescription medications to make them more difficult to abuse. Authorities have also tried to find and stop the many physicians who too freely prescribe such medications. Due to these measures, prescription painkillers have become in some cases harder to obtain, and heroin has become easier, and generally cheaper, to buy and to use. In fact, heroin often sells for less than $5 for a bag containing enough for one dose, making it cheaper than a pack of cigarettes.[ix]
My son Sam’s case was typical. As he explained to me later, as he became more and more addicted to Oxycontin, Xanax, etc., he became increasingly short of money. And then he lost his wait staff job. Heroin was simply cheaper, and easier, to find and buy than illegal prescription pills.
Maryland’s Efforts To Deal With Heroin Abuse
Officials in the state of Maryland, as well as in Virginia and other local jurisdictions, recognize the severity of the heroin problem in our area, and have implemented several measures to address it. For example, Former Governor Martin O’Malley created the Overdose Prevention Council, consisting of leaders of various state agencies, to study ways to prevent heroin and other drug fatalities. Also during O’Malley’s tenure, in 2013 Maryland lawmakers passed legislation that allowed first responders to begin carrying Naloxone, a medication that can reverse the effects of a lethal overdose. State troopers began distributing drug treatment information, and “Fatality Review Teams” were created to study each drug-related death to determine trends, at-risk groups, and possible prevention strategies.[x]
One of Governor Larry Hogan’s first acts as the new Maryland governor, in January 2014, was to declare a state of emergency due to the rise in heroin deaths, and to create a task force to determine the reasons for the increase.[xi] Also in 2014, Maryland, along with about 20 other states, and the District of Columbia, passed a Good Samaritan bill that provides drug users some criminal immunity if they summon help for an overdose victim.[xii] Recognizing that there is a serious problem is an important step, but a continuing commitment to rectify the problem needs to become a part of the conscience of all our communities.
A Final Note
On a more positive note, I can gratefully say that in April 2015 Sam celebrated four years of sobriety, a tribute to his tremendous courage, strength and hard work, his willingness to follow his twelve step program, and his continued efforts to give back to others with the same disease through AA sponsorship, and by helping to establish a new drug recovery center. I am, of course, ridiculously proud of him. But he is one of the fortunate few. There are way too many addicts and families suffering. I pray together, through publicizing the problem of drug addiction, local and national advocacy, research, and the creation of more reputable treatment options for those already addicted, we can begin to stem the horrific problem of heroin and other drug addiction in our country.
Best wishes to each and every one of you —