There’s no questioning it; heroin is harmful. It affects the user, their families, and their communities. It harms the body, causing almost an immediate dependence, and devastates families with high overdose fatality ratios. It also affects our economy. Heroin drains resources and cultures. Facilities have to be created and costs of treatments are staggering. The number of dollars spent on heroin addiction is unknown to many, surprising as they are. As with everything, education and awareness are the keys in reversing the cycle.
Heroin affects the body itself in several ways – direct, indirect, immediate, or prolonged. The most immediate is the rush of euphoria. The user injects, smokes, or otherwise ingests the drug into their body and they are filled with euphoria (“good” feeling), which is the most common reason for use. The body changes and adapts with repetitive use, forcing the user to maintain a “status quo” of heroin or the body suffers from withdrawals.
This “low” takes the user down below what they feel is normal. The user equates this to being sick and pursues the streets in search of the more heroin to level off building a ‘heroin tolerance.’ The high feeling is gone at this point, and, upon finding more of the drug, the user takes more just to feel “normal”. This is the basis of heroin dependency, and this can lead to long-term damage to the mind and body.
Signs of Heroin Use
As with all drugs heroin has its own set of signs that affect the user during the initial onset of use as well as with prolonged use. Some of these include:
- Tiny constricted pupils (also called pinpoint pupils)
- Clammy skin
- Drowsiness or tiredness
- Periods of consciousness and unconsciousness called ‘nodding out’
- Itching of the skin
- Confusion or forgetfulness
Another sign of heroin use is heroin withdrawal. This is when the user becomes physically ill after they stop taking heroin. Some of the signs of heroin withdrawal include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle and bone aches
- Back pain (especially lower back pain)
- Clammy hands
Long Term Damage Caused by Heroin
Because the drug is not a natural substance, deriving from chemicals rather than a plant, the body becomes very inept with long-term use of heroin. Veins collapse, the immune system is not built to fight off sickness due to the user’s poor choices and generally disregard for their health in this lifestyle of drug use. The drug damages the liver, forcing it to work harder as it filters out the “uncut” portions of the drug (the part that is not heroin, but “other things” added in). The heart is also exposed to the uncut portions, which cause a decline in a healthy system. With prolonged use, the body stops producing the appropriate amount of dopamine, a natural substance produced in the body directly related to feelings of euphoria and help the brain control movement. To put it simply, the body begins to shut down. Heroin is a “gateway drug” – its use is often in collaboration with other addictive substances, such as tobacco or other drugs. People who use often do not exercise or have a proper nutrition. Combined with the fact that users are likely to share needles, serious, even fatal health conditions may be a result.
It is not just the user who is affected by heroin. The families of users are forced to watch their loved one decline. The user may become desperate enough to steal money or priceless belongings from their families to sell for money to buy the drug. Communities and economies are also affected by heroin addiction. Because of the availability and the rising numbers of heroin addicts, facilities have been built to help those who want to be drug-free. Hospitals also receive many victims of heroin and have to treat them, which causes rising prices of medications (of course, heroin addiction alone is not singularly responsible for health care increases). Medical complications from heroin include AIDS, Hepatitis, Tuberculosis, and other problems; some having no cure. The harmful nature of heroin was not missed in policy makers, and laws had to be created to regulate the availability and use of the drug. This also costs money. The total economic expenditures on heroin and its effects in 1996 were well over $21 billion. The numbers have increased exponentially since then with the increase of population and “black market” availability.
Treating a Heroin Problem – Why it’s Difficult
Heroin is a devastating drug for whatever community it enters into and to whomever uses it. The drug can destroy lives easily, and more and more towns and cities are finding themselves having to deal with it. Communities across the country thought they’d seen the last of heroin decades ago. The drug was a persistent problem in many areas and created whole generations of addicts. While there are classes of so-called “recreational drugs”, heroin is definitely not one of them. Why is heroin now sweeping across the country again, and why is it such a hard problem for communities to handle? Here are several answers that may help explain the problem:
1. Heroin is powerfully addictive
One of the first reasons that we’re currently dealing with a heroin epidemic is simply that the drug is incredibly powerful and incredibly addictive. Heroin creates a powerful; fast high that is incredibly pleasing to the user, seeming to suffuse the body with pleasure and warmth. Studies have shown that just one use can “re-wire” the brain in a sense, making it easy for the user to want to take the drug again soon after his first high. Instead of it taking constant use to make an addict, just one hit can create a lifetime user.
2. Prescription drug abuse has led the way
Heroin use had dropped off over the last several decades, and that trend may have continued if it hadn’t been for another type of drug abuse. Opioid, prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and Oxycontin can create a very similar high to heroin when they are abused. These drugs are supposed to be swallowed and have a delayed reaction in the body, but if they are crushed and snorted or crushed and injected, they will hit the bloodstream and brain a lot faster. Patients with pain have legitimately been prescribed these drugs and found themselves addicted before they knew what was going on, leading them to then try more powerful drugs such as heroin.
3. Heroin is cheaper and more pure than ever
In years past, heroin had often been an expensive drug, leading many Americans to ignore it and use other drugs to get high. It was often thought of as a drug “for rock stars.” More recently, higher quantities of the drug entering the country have dropped prices dramatically. Another development is that heroin used to have a lower level of purity and couldn’t create the same high that it does now. Purity levels of the drug have increased dramatically, leading to users getting higher and getting addicted for less money than at any point in recent history. When it’s this powerful and this cheap, it’s very difficult to keep drug users off of it.
4. Small quantities from out of the country are hard to track
Another problem is one that law enforcement deals with. Heroin is often sold in very small amounts in tiny packets. When law enforcement is trying to crack down on heroin dealers, it can be very difficult to figure out who the dealer are or bust them with large amounts of the drug. Without being able to take large amounts of heroin off the street, it can continue to feed the epidemic.
5. It has come as a surprise
Whenever law enforcement and anti-drug abuse professionals are aware of a drug spreading in their area, they can work much harder to stop its spread. The resurgence of heroin has come as such a surprise for so many parts of the country, however, that many authorities have been caught completely flat-footed in dealing with it.
Heroin can be a difficult drug to handle, but that won’t stop law enforcement and drug rehab professionals from doing everything they can to stop the spread of a drug that destroys so many lives.
Sources & Resources
heroin.net. (n.d.). Heroin Effects on the Body. Retrieved October 10, 2013, from heroin.net: http://heroin.net/heroin-effects/heroin-effects-sub-page-1/heroin-effects-on-the-body/
Mark, T. L., Woody, G. E., Juday, T., & Kleber, H. D. (2001). The Economic Costs of Heroin Addiction in the United States. In Drug and Alcohol Dependence (pp. 195-206). Washington D.C.: Elsevier.
Daily Union: Heroin epidemic difficult challenge – http://www.dailyunion.com/news/article_38b39fa4-2aac-11e3-81a3-001a4bcf6878.html