When we talked about the rapid spread of opioid addiction, we stated that many of those who abuse prescription drugs will eventually wind up hooked on heroin. This is not true of all prescription drug addicts, but certainly a fair number of them. Even so, we recognize that some might believe this claim to be unsubstantiated. It’s hard for many to imagine how a drug prescribed by a trustworthy doctor could eventually lead to the abuse of a much more stigmatized (and highly illegal) substance. But the rising rates of opioid addiction have undoubtedly been accompanied by similarly rising rates of heroin addiction, and we feel that it would be beneficial to many abusers of prescription drugs to understand the connection.
This information is also important to the families of addicts who may be abusing prescription drugs. We recently stated that heroin addiction rates are rising among all demographics. This includes teenagers. And while there is no shortage of young people in recovery, many will find themselves meeting highly undesirable fates long before they are able to make it through the doors of a treatment center. The best solution is to be proactive, and this will require an understanding of the potential threats of prescription drug abuse as well as the eventual consequences that may occur if the problem is not halted in its tracks before it is able to spiral too far out of hand.
Below, we will discuss the similarities between heroin and prescription drugs. We will also provide a brief discussion regarding the history of heroin use and how this history relates to the topic at hand. Finally, we will discuss how addicts and their families can fight prescription drug addiction before it becomes fatal.
Linking Heroin and Prescription Drugs
The road from prescription drugs to heroin is generally pretty straightforward. For many, there may have been no previous signs of drug addiction. Or if there were, they might not have been a factor for quite some time. Then, one day, a person is injured or discovers that they need some sort of vital medical procedure. When all is said and done, the patient is prescribed opioid painkillers. But they find themselves continuing to use these medications long after their pain has worn off. Perhaps they go doctor shopping, trying to pick up more prescriptions than any single person would need. In some extreme cases, addicts may even injure themselves on purpose in order to acquire more pills.
Anyone familiar with the Jellinek Curve should be able to predict what happens next. The addict begins to develop a tolerance for prescription drugs. They need something similar, but different. Something stronger. And in many cases, their addiction will have put a drain on their wallet. The promise of a drug that’s not only stronger but also slightly more cost-effective will be too good to pass up. And while heroin is far from cheap, it seems like a steal compared to the price of most prescription opioids.
Not only that, but there’s been a major push for doctors to be a little more judicious when doling out subscriptions. Sure, not every doctor will be able to tell offhand that their patient is an addict. Many prescription drug addicts become very talented actors after a few rounds of doctor shopping. But many doctors will catch on, and their patient’s reserves of prescription drugs such as OxyContin may eventually run out. Heroin dealers, on the other hand, do not have to worry about the loss of a medical license. They have taken no oath to do right by their clientele. And when an addict is desperate for a fix, this lack of laws and ethics can seem quite appealing.
Once prescription opioid addicts have gone through the looking glass and begun chasing the dragon, they will likely not make it back to the other side without some form of outside interference. Now that heroin is becoming more accessible than ever before, those who are dedicated to finding a connection will almost always find one. And even if they never switch to heroin, those who abuse prescription drugs will only be marginally safer. To understand this, we must look at the history of heroin itself.
The History of Heroin and Opium Use
To analyze the rise of opioid and heroin addiction, we have to take it all the way back to the source—opium. Thomas De Quincey once wrote in 1821:
“Nobody will laugh long who deals much with opium. Its pleasures even are of a grave and solemn complexion.”
De Quincey was a man who knew the dangers of opium addiction firsthand. In fact, the manuscript in which the above passage appears is the quite aptly named Confessions of an Opium-Eater. And before opium was abused by addicts, it was used as a medicine. The poppy was first discovered to have potential medicinal properties in the sixteenth century, and the active ingredient morphine was discovered in 1803. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, heroin hit the market as a potential cure for respiratory issues such as bronchitis. In other words, there was a time when addiction to heroin and addiction to prescription drugs were essentially the same thing.
Ever-persistent addict personality myths cause people to refer to heroin addicts as “junkies,” viewing them as filthy, criminal loners. But we have long known that this is not necessarily the case. In 1916, psychiatrist Pearce Bailey wrote:
“For a long time the boys remain for the most part in good health and all along they possess a fair degree of intelligence. Some…show mental defects, but the majority are not materially defective in intellectual qualities. Like most adolescents with social tendencies, they lack individual initiative, are imitative and easily led; they fall into the habit easily and—this is the tragic part of it—ignorantly and innocently. Once the habit is established, they lose their interest in work, become late and irregular, throw up their jobs easily. Many are good workmen but will only work for the purpose of getting money with which to buy heroin.”
In other words, heroin addicts throughout history are not unlike those addicted to prescription drugs today. The disease begins with a patient who is simply ignorant in regard to the dangers of abusing their prescribed medications. Or perhaps it begins with a suggestion by a friend that prescription drugs can be used for more than their intended purpose. But after a while, the telltale signs of addiction begin to show themselves. Whether dealing with opium, heroin, or the prescription drugs of today, the downward spiral has always taken a similar shape.
Fighting Prescription Drug Addiction
In all honesty, the best way to fight addiction to heroin and prescription drugs is to prevent it from ever developing in the first place. Families of teenagers who may risk injury in sports or automobile accidents should make sure to speak with their children about the dangers of drug addiction. If they ever feel their child is abusing painkillers after an injury, they should try to nip the problem in the bud. Monitor their medication times, and see if they are following a strict schedule. If they are simply taking their pills whenever they feel a hint of pain, they may be taking more than they should. Also, remember to eliminate the drugs as soon as there is no more need for them. You can find lots of helpful information on the internet regarding the best way to dispose of prescription drugs.
When friends or family members suspect that a loved one is abusing prescription drugs, there is no time to waste. You may not always know precisely how long the problem has persisted, or how long it will be before they start considering other drugs. As such, it is imperative to stage an intervention as soon as possible. Let them know that you are concerned for their safety. Even if you harbor some anger over their condition, try not to let it get the best of you. Stress the potential dangers. Make it clear that this is about their safety, not your disappointment.
Once it has been established that there is a problem, further steps must still be taken. If you are reading this because you believe you may suffer from addiction yourself, take a look at our programs and our promise of personalized care. Many are afraid of entering treatment, believing there to be a stigma. But there is nothing shameful about taking steps to secure your well-being. And if you are reading this because you are worried about a friend or family member, make sure you research treatment options prior to the intervention. You want to be able to reassure the addict in your life that you have found a treatment and that it will be a safe space for them to recover.
Prescription drugs serve their purpose most of the time, but those who are predisposed to become addicts are putting themselves at great risks when they abuse opiates without considering the consequences. Not everyone who abuses prescription drugs will wind up on heroin, but this is still a risk that all opioid addicts are taking. For more information on the danger of addiction, how to stage an intervention, or the treatment process for those who have abused prescription drugs, contact us today.