The History of the American Heroin Epidemic

national heroin epidemic

On average, drug-related overdoses kill over 130 American citizens every single day – roughly 47,000 per year. The vast majority of current overdose-related deaths can be attributed to heroin and other opiates. In fact, over 80 of the daily drug-related fatalities are directly linked to opioid narcotics. As the issue spreads in size, it also spreads through a wide variety racial and economic demographics. Wealthy communities are being devastated by the heroin crisis – perhaps this is one of the reasons politicians are beginning to pay such close attention to the implications of this national epidemic. In March of this year, the Obama administration publicly announced a plan involving making addiction treatment more widespread and available while working to prevent opioid-related overdose deaths. Both the US House of Representatives and the Senate have passed bills geared towards curtailing the crisis, and many local legislations have begun advocating for accessible treatment rather than legal punishment and incarceration. But still, even with dramatically increased awareness and pervasive attempts at change, overdose death rates have far from peaked.

How did our nation get here?

National Heroin Epidemic – The Beginning

From 1999 to 2014, rates of opioid-related fatality have more than quadrupled. During this same 16-year time span, heroin addiction spread from a few concentrated areas of northern New Mexico and Appalachia to nearly every residential community across the US. Central Appalachia, which encompasses eastern Kentucky and the majority of West Virginia, was greatly impacted by the widespread availability and aggressive marketing of prescription painkillers throughout the early 1990s. This specific region of the US is largely rural, subjugated by industries that involve intense amounts of physical labor (such as timbering and coal mining). Laborers would see the local doctor for chronic back pain or sustained injury, and would be prescribed a high dosage of OxyContin or Vicodin without a second thought. Once the prescription ran out, they would return for another quick script.

High-potency painkillers were readily available throughout this specific region, and numerous cases of addiction were unwittingly being formed. Pharmaceutical companies were pushing their product on unsuspecting citizens, failing to mention the exceedingly high abuse rates of such medications. Rapidly increasing addiction rates and correlating overdose fatality rates lead to government crackdowns on painkiller distribution. By this time, many were battling full-fledged dependencies, and turned to a cheaper and more accessible alternative – heroin. As the rates of painkiller-related deaths began to steadily decline, rates of heroin addiction and overdose-related deaths began to skyrocket.

Addiction and Overdose Rates Began to Climb

The rate of overdose-related death in West Virginia alone increased eightfold between 1999 and 2014. During the same time period, Kentucky underwent a fivefold increase in opioid-related deaths. Since the start of the national heroin epidemic, the illicit substance has made its way from the South and Midwest to the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. Rates of heroin-related overdose are spiking across the country, though the highest rates of accidental overdose death are still (in order): West Virginia, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Montana, and Wyoming. In the early 2000s, New Mexico began showing blatant signs of a looming overdose crisis. Rates of accidental drug-related death were soaring, driven largely by an ever-increasing dependence on prescription opioids. Utah was not far behind, though lawmakers in this state took immediate action. In 2007, a 2-year plan was put into action, geared towards reducing the rates of prescription opioid misuse. Overdose-related death rates dropped 25 percent over the course of the next three years, though funding soon ran out and, as soon as it did, deaths began to climb once again.

Remedying the Issue

So, what is the issue? Is it a simple lack of funding that is exacerbating the heroin crisis, or is something far more complicated fueling national addiction and overdose rates? The biggest barriers to overcoming the epidemic in Appalachia (and the rest of the country, currently) are related to deep-seated stigma and a harsh lack of adequate treatment. There is also a great amount of stigma and misinformation revolving around medication-assisted addiction treatment, which, combined with a simple lack of funding, has lead to a scarcity of professional providers. In order for the heroin epidemic to be successfully combatted, awareness needs to be spread, greater preventative measures need to be taken, and far more adequate treatment options need to be provided.

However, treatment options are available to most individuals who actively seek them. Professional inpatient treatment facilities such as Next Chapter often offer scholarships to men and women who cannot afford to pay for treatment out-of-pocket or who lack adequate health insurance. Finding treatment is often as simple as reaching out and earnestly searching. If you or someone you love is battling an addiction to heroin or prescription painkillers – help IS available. Please contact us today for more information.