The use of heroin has been on the upswing as many prescription pain med addicts switch to heroin. The release of the DEA’s National Heroin Threat Assessment (NHTA) in April 2015 highlights this severe problem.
The number of heroin users almost doubled between 2007 and 2013 based on information from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. While heroin use is less common than other illegal drugs, the number of heroin users is growing at a faster rate.
There are a number of reasons for this upswing in heroin use. Eighty percent of recent new users had previously abused prescription pain medication, and heroin is cheaper and easier to obtain than illegal pain meds. In addition, today’s heroin is much more pure than in previous days, thus allowing it to be snorted or smoked. This lets users avoid the stigma of injecting the drug.
With its increased purity, today’s heroin is deadlier than in days past, and the death rate from its use almost tripled between 2007 and 2013. Unfortunately, this is probably an underestimate, since heroin quickly metabolizes to morphine in the body. Thus, many heroin overdoses are misdiagnosed as being due to morphine.
Information on the threat of heroin comes from more than 1,000 law enforcement agencies that identified the most serious drug threat in their area. The numbers of agencies that reported that heroin was the most severe threat increased from 8% to 38% between 2007 and 2015.
LEOs in the Northeast and Midwest in particular report heroin abuse as a highly severe problem, and users in these areas tend to use white powder heroin in contrast to the black tar and brown powder heroin that is popular on the West Coast.
Drug cartels have been quick to take advantage of this trend and smuggle the drug into the US. The number of heroin seizures in the US increased 81% between 2010 and 2014, and the average size of these seizures more than doubled.
The DEA has been aggressively cracking down on heroin use and trafficking, and the number of arrests for heroin surpassed those of marijuana for the first time in 2014. Policy makers have been working hard to limit access to prescription opiates in hopes that this will reduce the trend of increasing levels of heroin addiction.