U.S. DEA Report Indicates Tripling of Heroin Consumption Over Seven Years

Heroin consumption in the United States nearly tripled between 2007 and 2014, and it is now the cause of 10,000 deaths per year, according to an annual report released by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The report, compiled from 1,444 surveys of a nationally representative sample of state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies, is intended to give policymakers and drug executives a comprehensive and synthesized picture of the threat opioids pose.

The DEA describes the use and abuse of heroin and other opiate drugs as a crisis, citing the tripling of reported cases of heroin consumption from 161,000 in 2007 to 435,000 in 2014. There was also a significant increase in heroin-related deaths from 2010 to 2014, rising from 3,036 to 10,574, according to the DEA.

According to the federal agency, even though the U.S. is experiencing a national opioid epidemic, suburban areas and outlying counties surrounding big cities are being hit the hardest, particularly those in the Northeast and the Midwest. The DEA identified the most lucrative heroin markets as those in major Eastern cities such as Baltimore, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

The heroin market has evolved over the last three decades, primarily in that it has become easier to find both higher quality and less expensive heroin. The average retail-level purity of heroin in the early 1980s was 10 percent, and that increased to 40 percent by the late 1990s. At the same time, the price decreased significantly, going from an average price per gram of $3,260 in 1981 (in 2012 U.S. Dollars) to $622 in 1999.

In 2016, 45 percent of state and local authorities in the U.S. reported that heroin posed the greatest threat of all illegal drugs. This is up from 38 percent in 2015 and well above the seven percent level reported in 2007.

In addition, deaths related to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, used in medicine as an analgesic or painkiller, jumped 79 percent from 2013 to 2014. The report highlights the “novelty” of this year—a phenomenon described as fentanyl-disguised medical prescriptions, and estimates that it resulted in the deaths of 19 people in Florida and California during the first quarter of 2016.

Driven by the huge potential for profit, traffickers are exploiting the high demand for painkillers, tranquilizers and prescription sedatives by producing cheap fakes that can be sold on the street. According to the DEA, “while pharmaceutical fentanyl (from transdermal patches or lozenges) is diverted for abuse in the United States at small levels, this latest rash of overdose deaths is largely due to clandestinely-produced fentanyl, not diverted pharmaceutical fentanyl.

As a general trend, the number of consumers, admissions to treatment centers, deaths from overdose (both from legal and trafficked drugs), and seizures from traffickers increased with respect to last year’s report. Many opiate addicts begin legally consuming prescribed opiates, but then start using heroin because it has higher purity levels, is less expensive, and easier to obtain than legal opiates, according to the report. “The heroin user population is increasing in size at a much faster rate than any other drug of abuse,” stated the report, which qualified this narcotic as “far more deadly to its user population” than any other drug.

The Obama administration warned repeatedly about the “epidemic” of addiction to heroin and opiate analgesics in the country, and announced new funding to combat this phenomenon. As for the current administration, President Donald Trump referred to the heroin and opioid crisis at various occasions during his campaign, calling it a “tremendous problem” and issuing a plan to fight it a few days after a speech in New Hampshire (one of the states most badly affected by the epidemic) in mid-October 2016.

President Trump’s plan is two-fold: first, to fight the entrance of drugs into the U.S. by increasing border security, building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, ending the so-called sanctuary cities, “aggressively” prosecuting traffickers and deporting illegal immigrant cartels and traffickers; second, to get drug addicts “the help they need” by expanding access to treatment and “lifting the cap on the number of patients that doctors can treat with recovery medications.”

Some physicians and experts in the field propose solutions focused on reducing the amount of drugs legally prescribed as a way to prevent patients from having a first contact with opioids that can potentially turn into an addiction.

In a recent blog post, the Executive Vice President of the largest health insurance trade association in the country, America’s Health Insurance Plans, Carmella Bocchino, advocated for promoting treatments to physical pain that do not involve the prescription of narcotics, such as exercise and physical therapy.

Another possible way to fight the heroin and opioid epidemic is, according to a study by the American College of Emergency Physicians, the use of prescription drug monitoring programs, which are databases that track patient’s controlled substance prescriptions and may help reduce inappropriate prescribing.

Article source: U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. “National Heroin Threat Assessment Summary”. 2016.

Featured photo: cc/(diego_cervo, photo ID: 499454295, from iStock by Getty Images)

Marc Arcas-Salvador

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