10 Jun Prescription Drug Addicts Switching to Heroin
Two million Americans reported using prescription painkillers non-medically for the first time in 2012, which works out to almost 5,500 new illicit users per day. This is a serious issue in itself—since some prescription drugs can be as addictive as their illegal counterparts—but the similarity between narcotic painkillers and heroin is creating a new problem. Users encountering problems getting access to their prescription medicine of choice are switching to heroin to curb their cravings and get the high they’re looking for. Not only are prescription medicines a potential danger in themselves, they’re serving as a gateway to riskier, unregulated substances.
Prescription Painkillers and Heroin
The link between prescription painkillers and heroin may not be immediately obvious to first-time users, which could be a contributing factor to the problem. The fact is that prescription drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin, Demerol and Duragesic are in the same “class” as heroin—opiates—which is why they’re referred to as “narcotic” painkillers. They have a similar chemical make-up, but are clinically manufactured and come with strict dosing schedules to ensure they can be used medically without risking addiction or unnecessary side effects.
The effects of prescription painkillers are virtually the same as the effects of heroin as a result of the chemical similarity. The brain has opiate receptors, which these drugs are able to bind to and create their effects. The receptors are primarily concentrated in areas of the brain responsible for the sensation of pain and the regulation of emotions, which basically means that the drugs have significant effects on these areas of functioning. In essence, they increase the amount of the “reward” chemical dopamine, creating euphoria and intense relaxation in the user. Think of the receptors as “locks,” which release dopamine when they’re opened by the right sized “key.” These locks are designed for naturally-created substances, but heroin and opiate painkillers are the right configuration to activate the mechanism too. From the brain’s perspective, drugs like OxyContin might as well be heroin.
Painkillers ARE Addictive
As you might expect, given the chemical similarities between prescription painkillers and heroin and the virtually identical mechanism of action, narcotic painkillers are addictive in exactly the same way. When you take more and more of the substance (particularly if done more frequently or in larger doses than recommended), your brain adapts itself to suit the regular chemical intake, reducing the amount of dopamine it produces naturally. This means that the user needs to take more of the drug to achieve the same effects, and if the drug is stopped, the brain will be left in a state of imbalance, leading to withdrawal. At this point, the individual can be thought to be addicted.
The Florida Example
Recent news from Florida shows that prescription painkiller addicts switch to heroin if their supply is disrupted. Withdrawal from opiates is basically like a flu, except exponentially worse, so it’s understandable that prescription painkiller abusers quickly look for a substitute if they can’t get a fix. In Florida, the state’s crack-down on things like pill mills have drastically reduced the amount of prescription painkillers available to abusers, and this has led them to make the switch to heroin to curb their cravings and combat withdrawal. The statistics confirm that this is a problem, showing an increase in deaths, criminal charges, and admissions to rehabilitation centers related to heroin. The issue is very real—prescription painkillers shortages lead addicts to illicit substances.
Another issue that leads some prescription painkiller addicts into heroin addiction is the huge price difference between the two substances. NBC News reports that while non-medical users pay between $20 and $60 to get prescription drugs from friends, heroin costs $3 to $10 per bag—in other words, it’s considerably cheaper for abusers to get their high from illicit drugs. Users may start using prescription drugs under the fallacious assumption that they’re “safer” than their illegal counterparts, but the financial reality soon leads them to the more affordable option.
Cases from across the country have shown that when faced with financial difficulties or trouble securing their ordinary supply, prescription painkiller addicts are prone to switch to heroin to get their fix. Prescription painkillers are by no means safe, but they are at least manufactured with extreme care to maximize their safety. Heroin goes through no such controls, and a tainted batch could have severe consequences. Prescription painkiller users across the country need to be aware of the added dangers of spiraling into heroin addiction, as well as the existing risks of abusing drugs like Vicodin. The only thing you can do to stay safe is to take prescription medicines as instructed by your doctor, and if you think you’re becoming addicted, seek help as soon as possible.
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