Study Finds ‘Notable Downturn’ in Opioid Abuse

By Pat Anson, Editor

A “notable downturn” in the abuse of opioid pain medication in the United States is being overshadowed by a sharp rise in heroin use, according to a large new study outlined in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine.

In the nationwide study of over 15,000 patients being treated for addiction, the number of addicts who abused opioids alone fell from 70% in 2010 to less than 50% in 2014.

At the same time, however, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that many addicts were using heroin and opioids concurrently. Forty-two percent said they had taken heroin and prescription opioids within a month of entering treatment, up from nearly 24 percent in 2008.

"We see very few people transition completely from prescription opioids to heroin; rather, they use both drugs," said lead author Theodore J. Cicero, PhD. "There's not a total transition to heroin, I think, because of concerns about becoming a stereotypical drug addict."

The use of heroin alone – although still relatively low -- more than doubled from 2008 to 2014, from 4.3% to 9% of the addicts under treatment.

Heroin has spread beyond inner cities into suburban and rural areas, according to Cicero. His research also found regional variations in the use of heroin and prescription opioids.

"On the East and West coasts, combined heroin and prescription drug use has surpassed the exclusive use of prescription opioids," Cicero said. “This trend is less apparent in the Midwest, and in the Deep South, (where) we saw a persistent use of prescription drugs -- but not much heroin.”

The study did not make clear how many of the addicts were legitimate pain patients who took opioids to relieve their pain or whether they were recreational users who started taking opioids to get high.

Cicero says a crackdown on "pill mills" and doctors overprescribing opioids has made it harder to get the drugs. For those who are addicted, heroin has become the new drug of choice.

"If users can't get a prescription drug, they might take whatever else is there, and if that's heroin, they use heroin," he said.

Heroin is more accessible and cheaper today, said Percy Menzies, president of Assisted Recovery Centers of America, which operates four addiction treatment clinics in the St. Louis area.

“Political events triggered the present heroin problem. 90% of the world's heroin comes from just three countries - Afghanistan, Burma and Mexico. The Afghan and Burmese heroin was a perfect cash crop for insurgency groups and the heroin addiction spread rapidly in countries bordering Afghanistan and Burma. Mexico is a bigger problem for us because farmers in that country have switched to growing the poppy,” said Menzies in an email to Pain News Network.

Opioids aren’t the only “gateway” drug to heroin, according to Menzies. He believes the increasing use of buprenorphine (Suboxone) to treat addiction is fueling the heroin epidemic because addicts have found they can use the drug to ease systems of withdrawal.

“We are seeing more and more patients getting exposed to heroin and it is going to get worse. Sadly, the heroin addiction is being sustained by buprenorphine preparations,” Menzies said.

Menzies has more to say about buprenorphine, marijuana legalization, and "the coming tsunami" in heroin use in this guest column.