OxyContin, Heroin and the Opioid Crisis

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The roles of heroin and OxyContin in the opioid crisis are frequently mischaracterized and misunderstood. Such is the case with a recent op/ed in The Washington Post.

“In the 1990s, when the industry began aggressively marketing prescription opioids such as OxyContin, heroin was a minimal presence in American life," wrote Keith Humphreys, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University

This is an unfortunate and common error about the role of heroin in the opioid crisis. Humphreys is repeating what many politicians and policymakers have also claimed. It’s important to correct this error because otherwise we will misunderstand how to treat heroin addiction, what our options are for pain management, and how to create sound policies to address the opioid crisis.

In fact, the U.S. has long had a major problem with heroin. Mexican black tar heroin arrived decades before OxyContin, and opioid addiction is usually a result of recreational use starting during adolescence, with addiction due to medical care being uncommon.

According to the book “Dark Paradise” by historian David Courtwright, researchers estimated the number of heroin addicts in the U.S. during the 1990s at a half million or more, about the same level as in the mid-1970s. This is also close to the 626,000 heroin addicts that the National Institute of Drug Abuse estimates for 2016.


Fatal overdoses involving Mexican black tar heroin were increasing even before OxyContin was introduced by Purdue Pharma in 1996. Sam Quinones notes in “Dreamland” that Oregon’s Multnomah County had only 10 heroin overdose deaths in 1991, about the time Mexican drug dealers arrived in Portland, but by 1999 there were 111 heroin overdoses.

So the idea that “heroin was a minimal presence in American life” isn’t supported by data. Neither is the claim that heroin traffickers “set up shop in the areas of the United States with the highest prevalence of prescription opioid addiction.”

According to Quinones, the Mexican drug gang the “Xalisco Boys” went into communities that were not a part of the established drug trade and were not subject to turf wars or other forms of gang violence. They wanted to fly below the radar, to avoid detection by law enforcement, and deliberately avoided carrying guns, driving fancy cars, or living large.
So the Xalisco Boys went to smaller cities like Portland and rural communities like Appalachia that were specifically chosen because they were low risk. And they were there well before 1996 and the advent of OxyContin.

Humphreys makes an additional error with his claim that about 80 percent of Americans who became heroin addicts started out with prescription opioids, according to an assessment from the National Institutes of Health. The 80% statistic varies significantly with time and place. As I wrote in a previous column,  non-medical use of opioid medication was found in 50% of young adult heroin users in Ohio, in 86% of heroin users in New York and Los Angeles, and in 40%, 39%, and 70% of heroin users in San Diego, Seattle, and New York respectively.

It's also important to note that “prescription opioids” does not necessarily mean prescribed opioids. Many addicts don't have a prescription and steal, buy or borrow pain medication. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that about 10 percent of patients legally prescribed opioids develop an opioid use disorder. And only about 5 percent of those who misuse their medication transition to heroin.

There is also a disturbing new trend in heroin use. A study in JAMA Psychiatry last year found that about one-third of heroin users had no prior experience with any opioid, prescription or otherwise. Heroin users often have extensive prior drug use with a variety of different substances, along with a history of severe childhood trauma or mental illness.

Humphreys’ claim that the “heroin-addicted were transfers from prescription opioids” ignores another route on the path to opioid addiction. In “Drug Dealer, MD,” Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke says some drug addicts switched from heroin to prescription opioids in the late 1990s and early 2000s because of the increased availability of the latter.

None of this is meant to exonerate OxyContin or Purdue Pharma. Barry Meier’s recent book “Pain Killer” does a good job of explaining the history of the company and why it is the focus of so many lawsuits. Purdue was fined over $600 million for the illegal marketing of OxyContin and important questions about the company’s actions remain to be answered.

Heroin addiction has been a major presence in American life for generations. The current opioid crisis may have been jump-started with prescription drugs, but heroin came long before OxyContin. It is better to view OxyContin as gasoline tossed on a smoldering fire, rather than blame OxyContin for heroin. The crisis is more complicated and pervasive than that.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.