In addition to heroin, they are also using cocaine and abusing opioid painkillers. As expected, with the rise in heroin use comes heroin overdoses and deaths. Heroin-related overdose deaths quadrupled between 2002 and 2013. Roughly 8,200 people lost their lives from overdosing on heroin in 2013.
Heroin is synthesized from morphine which was isolated from opium, created from the sap of opium poppies. Poppy growth and cultivation goes way back into ancient Mesopotamia around 3400 B.C., and opioid-related rugs were used in American medicine during the 1800s. Opium was an excellent pain reliever and could provide comfort to cancer patients, women in childbirth and those suffering from other painful maladies. However, while it was an effective pain reliever, it was also highly addictive.
There have been at least two other heroin epidemics in the United States due to abuse and addiction. The first came after WWII and the second after the Vietnam War. Both are traced to opioids being cheap and readily available overseas. As the supply dwindled, the purity went down, and the price increased. Abuse never went away, but it had at least subsided.
Abuse on the Rise
Today’s rise in heroin and opioid use is linked to the unfortunate increase in marketing and prescription of opioid drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin. Sales of both quadrupled between 1999 and 2010. People are abusing their prescription drugs, getting addicted and looking for more illegally.
So as the deaths rise, what can we do to try to stop them?
· Address and combat the strongest risk factor for addiction and abuse: prescription opioid painkillers. Can doctors pursue other painkillers which are not addictive? Can prescriptions be more controlled and limited so that addiction is less common?
· Give people greater access to substance abuse treatment services.
· Help local governments to work with hospitals to provide prevention services and partner with law enforcement where drug addiction is common.
Another idea is to, in a way, fight fire with fire. Marijuana is being used as a substitute for heroin and opioid abuse or to treat the withdrawal symptoms of opioid and heroin abusers. Some researchers have considered the possibility that medical marijuana could contribute to helping recovering addicts through the pain. Potentially, marijuana in its recreational form could even contribute to some people never even starting with heroin.
Whatever your opinion on marijuana legalization is, there's no denying the numbers. While approximately 10,574 people die from heroin overdose annually, a stunning zero die from marijuana use. It’s hard to argue with those numbers, and what do addicts or we as a society have to lose by trying?
Medical marijuana is legal in 28 states and the District of Columbia, all with varying differences in their laws. In most people can legally use marijuana to treat glaucoma, cancer, chronic pain and the complications of AIDS/HIV. States have not yet extended the law to cover treating opioid addiction, but several are pursuing it.
Reversing Heroin’s Damage
One chemical compound in marijuana called cannabidiol is the main ingredient to treating addiction. Cannabidiol binds to receptors in our brains and can reverse some of the damages caused by heroin abuse. Heroin damages the glutamate transmitter system, which is important for cognition, decision-making skills and feelings of reward.
Cannabinol also raises serotonin levels, the chemical which makes us feel good and happy. Medical marijuana in this way could also be used to treat anxiety and depression. Research is still being done, and there are no hard facts yet — just positive results.
A study in 2014 concluded that states with legalized marijuana in one form or another have seen decreases in opioid prescription, opioid addiction and a 25% decrease in opioid overdoses and death. Regardless of how you feel about marijuana use, we should all agree that it is not nearly as bad as opioid drug abuse and addiction.
Give It a Chance
Some may feel we’re just trading one bad habit for another. It’s a cliché that people in Alcoholics Anonymous end up getting hooked on cigarettes. Some people just need to trade one obsession or addiction for another. But, especially in states that have already legalized marijuana, what good does it do to legally keep them from using marijuana to treat drug addiction? If you feel strongly about keeping marijuana illegal — as it still technically is under United States law — then feel free to vote against ballot proposals and to protest against it.
But let’s not keep our minds closed to the subject. Marijuana has been used medically since ancient history across many different cultures. We outlawed it out of our ignorance and fear and attached a stigma to those who used it. In fact, we criminally prosecuted and jailed them, too.
Meanwhile, clinical trials elsewhere in the world are discovering new ways to use the drug to treat chronic pain, mental illness, cancer, seizures, and many types of diseases. The substance has so much potential to treat problems even beyond other kinds of addiction, if we give it a chance.
Now that we have made progress in the use and acceptance of marijuana in our culture, let’s free any remaining legal reins on it — in the states that have already legalized it — and see what can be done to treat, fight and prevent future heroin epidemics.
As a freelance writer and journalist, Corinne Keating finds joy in covering all things related to health and wellness. When she isn’t writing for her blog, Why So Well, she writes for sites like Mind Body Green, Medical Daily, and Healthline. Follow @corikeating on Twitter to discover more of her work.