Is Heroin on its Way Out?
The heroin epidemic is beginning to come to an end! You heard it first from Lighthouse Recovery Institute…well, actually, you heard it first from VICE News.
They recently published a wonderful and thought provoking article – one centered around the idea that the heroin epidemic currently ravaging America may soon run its course.
At least that’s what several scientists, researchers, and experts think. One of these experts is Dr. Brad Lander, the Clinical Director of Addiction Psychiatry at Wexner Medical Center. You may remember Wexner as the institution that created Squirrel Smart Recovery, a heroin addiction recovery app for smartphones.
When asked about heroin abuse across the country, Dr. Lander had the following to say,
“These things go in cycles…I really think it’s just going to run its course. I think as people see how dangerous this is, it will disappear over time — at least, that’s what I’ve seen in my experience” (Health Day).
In order to understand why the heroin epidemic may soon come to an end, we first need to look at how drug epidemics are spawned. Find information on that, and why heroin use may be the exception to this rule, below!
Understand How Drug Epidemics are Born
Drug epidemics – be they illicit or prescription – usually follow a similar pattern. They start, seemingly out of nowhere, gain momentum, reach a peak, plateau, and then begin to fade away.
History holds many examples of this cycle. Consider the following:
- The marijuana epidemic of the 1920s and 30s
- The diet pill and tranquilizer epidemic of the 50s
- The cocaine epidemic of the 70s and 80s
- The crack epidemic of the 80s and 90s
- The ecstasy epidemic of the 90s
- The painkiller epidemic of the early aughts and today’s current heroin epidemic
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What do these epidemics all have in common? They became popular, they stayed popular for a period of time, and they faded away.
So, how do drugs become popular in the first place? The same way most everything does – through word of mouth and shared experience.
Think about it like this – if someone you admire and trust tells you about an amazing drug that will take away all your problems, make you feel great, and really “isn’t as bad as everyone thinks,” you’re probably going to do that drug.
Well, that’s what’s been happened across the United States with heroin. Jonathan Caulkins, a researcher from Carnegie Mellon University, backs this idea up. When asked about how drug epidemics start, he said,
“This metaphor [drug use as a viral epidemic] is appropriate even though there is not literally a pathogen…because most initiation occurs through contact with current users, not at the urging of drug sellers” (VICE News)
Makes sense, right?
Okay, so that’s how drug epidemics begin and gain momentum. That’s how we’ve reached our current point – towns overrun and lives destroyed by opioids. How do we move to the next chapter? How do we start to phase heroin out of our collective conciseness?
Understanding How Drug Epidemics End
If a certain drug’s popularity is largely determined by word of mouth, then its death is determined by large scale negative feedback and education.
To return to our hypothetical situation – a trusted friend of yours recommends heroin, saying it isn’t nearly as dangerous as everyone thinks – what happens after you’re hooked?
Well, you begin to get a boatload of negative consequences. You spend a lot of money to maintain your habit. You lie and hurt people you care about. You may steal or do other illegal activities to get the drug. You have health complications. You may overdose. The list goes on and on.
As thousands, or even millions, of people begin to experience these consequences – the word gets out that the drug in question isn’t as good as people say.
Let’s again return to out hypothetical situation and say you have a younger cousin. You warn them about the dangers of heroin. When one of their friends comes to them and says “I just tried this great new drug. You need to try it too,” they’re going to say no based on your experience.
Jonathan Caulkins confirms this small-scale, personal backlash can have quite a large effect:
A drug’s popularity begins to diminish when negative feedback gains the upper hand, either through word of mouth reports, bad experiences, or public attention to overdoses and other dangers. He also found that policies aimed at preventing new users and treating current users both help lessen a drug’s appeal (VICE News).
So, just as using a particular drug becomes epidemic through word of mouth – that’s also how use of the same drug fades away.
What Makes Heroin Different?
Despite the predictable epidemic to obscurity cycle, some experts believe heroin may be different. They think it’s not going anywhere, even though it’s reached critical mass and should soon die out.
What makes the heroin epidemic different than those before it? What may prevent it from fading away like ecstasy use did in the 90s? The overwhelming presence of prescription painkillers.
Kimberly Kirby is one of these experts who worries heroin may be here to stay. She’s an addiction psychologist at the Treatment Research Institute based in Philadelphia (one of the cities hit hardest by heroin abuse). When asked by VICE about whether she thought widespread heroin use would soon begin to decline, she responded with uncertainty,
“The one thing I think that’s disconcerting about [heroin] is that because of the increase in use that is coming from prescription opioids, they’ve become a lot more available than they used to be…I would guess if the availability of prescript [sic] of opioids does decrease you would see reduction in use…”
She raises a good point. As painkillers became demonized in the media, as they became increasingly expensive and difficult to get, many addicts turned to heroin. If heroin goes the same way – what’s to stop these addicts from returning to prescription pills or staying stuck in a pill/heroin cycle?
That question may be what differentiates our current heroin epidemic from past drug plagues. Still, at this point that’s the opinion of a minority of experts. Most believe that heroin use should begin to decline in the coming months and years.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is something we can all be thankful for.