Whether you’ve heard or followed the stories of heroin-addicted celebrities such as Philip Seymour Hoffman; come across heroin addiction blogs, journal articles, pictures, books, movies, poems or quotes; or just seen pictures of heroin users, it’s obvious that the drug has been a significant part of our country’s culture for many decades. But beyond the sometimes “glamorous” stories of the famous or less-than-famous addict lies an endless series of heroin addiction statistics that point out just how serious and deadly this drug is for the many in the United States.
Those statistics show that heroin abuse has remained steady and, in fact, is on the rise in our country. In the past three years alone nearly 700,000 Americans reported using heroin, especially in the young adult demographic of 18 to 25 year old. Additionally, more than 150,000 people reported that they began using heroin, nearly double the number of people who began using the drug only six years earlier. Heroin abuse is, for now, confined to 18-year-olds and above: Less than one percent of 8th-12th graders have tried the drug since 2005. But unfortunately, it’s estimated that some 25 percent of individuals who use heroin even once become dependent on it.
A member of the opioid class of drug, heroin is synthesized from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of the opium poppy plant. The drug usually appears as a white or brown powder or as a black sticky substance— known as “black tar heroin”—and is most commonly injected, but can also be snorted smoked. Heroin is distinguished by how quickly it reaches the brain, where it is converted back into morphine and instantly binds to the molecules on cells known as opioid receptors. These receptors control the perception of pain and arousal throughout the body, as well as critical systematic functions such as blood pressure and respiration.
After an injection of heroin, users report a characteristic surge of euphoria accompanied by a dry mouth, a warm flushing of the skin, heaviness in the extremities and severely cloudy mental functions. After the initial “rush” they enter a state of alternating wakefulness and drowsiness, and it’s during this point that a heroin overdose is most likely to occur. Frequently, a suppression of breathing occurs and the amount of oxygen reaching the brain is significantly reduced in a condition known as hypoxia. Depending on the severity of the bout of hypoxia, there can be serious long-term psychological and neurological effects including coma and irreversible brain damage.
When heroin is used in the long-term—most often years on end as the user builds up a tolerance to the drug and begins taking more and more to achieve the same high—its detrimental effects on the body and brain become permanent: the brain’s white matter begins to deteriorate, leading to uncontrollable lapses in decision-making capacities, the ability to regulate one’s behavior and an inability to cope with stressful situations. Therefore, the heroin addict—unable to handle stressful situations—often retreats from the world and begins taking more and more of the drug to avoid dealing with the responsibilities of daily life.