Opioid Crisis Hits Home: Heroin

Beautiful fields of opium poppy flowers produce heroin, a drug that makes some rich while it destroys the lives of many more. Drug cartels oversee the growth and harvest of opium poppies and control the manufacture, transportation and sale of heroin. Harvested from the seed pods of poppies, the natural substance morphine is used to make heroin. Opium poppies grow in South and Central America, and Southwest and Southeast Asia.

Law enforcement agencies throughout Mexico and the US struggle to combat those profiting from the production and sale of heroin. It is a constant unending battle. In Mexico, cartel bosses rule rural mountain communities where they grow the poppies with threats and unimaginable violence, murdering entire families who do not comply. American law enforcement along the border and throughout all levels of federal and state jurisdictions battle the transport and sale of heroin.

The steady and alarming increase in prescription opioid abuse has overshadowed the continued threat of the illegal opioid heroin. Heroin continues to be a threat and in fact has increased dramatically. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) heroin-related overdose deaths increased by more than five times between 2010 and 2016.

Usually injected, but sometimes snorted or smoked, heroin gives users a rush, a sense of complete euphoria. Other side effects include decreased breathing, and tolerance leading to addiction. After long-term use the symptoms of withdrawal come very quickly, just hours after use, leading the person to use again and again throughout the day. Higher and higher doses are needed to relieve the symptoms of withdrawal. Overdose is a very real and deadly threat.

In withdrawal, tremors, vomiting, fever, racing heart rate rack the body. More heroin provides relief, briefly. Finding relief frequently leads people to add other drugs, like Xanax or prescription opioids, and/or alcohol into the mix. These combinations greatly increase the chances of overdose. Heroin overdose leads to slowed breathing, coma and death. Many heroin users previously abused pain medication.

Drugs such as OxyContin and Fentanyl, synthetic opioids made for the medical industry, were first touted as non-addictive by manufacturers. In reality, the risk of dependence is high. The strength of fentanyl—50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine—makes it an especially dangerous drug. Counterfeit fentanyl, produced in illegal labs, has found its way all across the world. This illegally produced fentanyl, of unknown strength and composition, finds it’s way into heroin. Dealers add it to increase the potency of their product, which increases sales or leads to overdose.

Naloxone products have the ability to reverse overdose, saving lives. Injected into the vein or muscle naloxone can reverse the effects of opioids in 3-5 minutes. It is also available as a nasal spray. Naloxone lasts about 45 minutes, so several doses may be needed to prevent an overdose. Increasingly, first responders carry naloxone products hoping to save lives.

Sadly, many in our society still view addiction as a personal choice or weakness rather than as a disease. In communities where addiction is treated as a medical condition many more resources and support are available. Some cities provide needle exchanges to lessen the spread of infectious diseases. City health officials in Baltimore and other cities fight for easier access to naloxone products for all. Narcan is once such product. Making it an over-the-counter medication will save even more lives.

Combating opioid addiction as a public health issue rather than as a criminal issue for addicts could lead to more success stories. Increased access to treatment, and access to lifesaving drugs such as naloxone give hope that lives and families can be restored.

Joe Eisele, CACIII, NCAC
Joe is the Clinical Director at InnerBalance Health Center and has been helping achieve lifelong sobriety incorporating biochemical restoration and holistic addiction treatment for over 30 years.