Prescription Drugs Lead Way to Heroin
Prescriptions for opioid painkillers have nearly tripled in 20 years. Part 2 of series.
Addiction typically starts at home with legal drugs, according to Rusty Payne, national spokesperson for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “It all starts with the pills.”
Doctors are not only distributing a greater number of painkillers than in previous decades, they are also prescribing them too often, said Dr. Michael McNett of the Milwaukee Medical Society.
In 2013, the most recent year for which data are available, almost 207 million prescriptions were written for opioids, such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Demerol. In 1991, doctors wrote 76 million prescriptions for such drugs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that the amount of painkillers prescribed in 2010 was so large that every American adult could take a pill every four hours for an entire month. The United States makes up almost 5 percent of the world’s population, yet consumes 80 percent of its narcotics.
More than half of prescription drug abusers in 2014 reported getting pills from a friend or relative, and more than half of young heroin users who inject the drug said they abused prescription opioids first, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Users can take prescription painkillers the same way they can take heroin, by crushing and snorting or injecting. Since heroin produces a more intense high at a cheaper price than prescription drugs, painkillers start to look less like a gateway to heroin and more like a highway.
This exposure fundamentally changes brain chemistry by raising the amount of chemicals the brain requires for normal function. The user needs to take drugs more frequently or in higher doses to experience the same euphoria. “When you become an opiate addict, your body craves and craves and craves,” Payne said.
Withdrawal affects every user differently, but a high drug tolerance typically correlates with stronger withdrawal symptoms. Injecting causes an almost immediate high because blood carries the drug directly to the brain, but the chemicals are used up quickly, giving way to a dramatic crash. A body coming off such an intense high can experience a wrenching seesaw between cold sweats and hot flashes, vomiting and diarrhea.
When the body abruptly comes off of a drug high, basic functions, such as getting out of bed or going to work, seem impossible without heroin.
Clouded thinking produced by heroin dependence or withdrawal dramatically increases the risk of a fatal overdose. A typical hit of heroin causes the body to relax. The heart rate decreases and breathing slows. Ingest too much heroin and the body forgets to breathe. Blood pressure drops so low that blood barely circulates to the organs that are in desperate need of it. Brain cells start to die after five minutes without oxygen.
Drug poisoning killed nearly 44,000 people in the United States in 2013 and was the number one cause of injury-related deaths in the country, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Through November 2015, Milwaukee County had 244 drug-related deaths, which is on pace to eclipse any year dating back to 2002.
The brain’s neural pathways cannot heal themselves once they are changed, said Dr. John Mantsch, professor of biomedical sciences at Marquette University. These changes stay with the user, regardless of whether it has been 10 minutes or 10 years since the last high. People who achieve sobriety have a greater risk of relapsing because the neural pathways are changed. Mantsch calls heroin addiction the “battle that lasts a lifetime.”
More about the Opioid Crisis
- Sensenbrenner-Backed Legislation to Fight Synthetic Opioids Clears House - U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner - Jun 15th, 2018
- Community Engagement Session Hosted by Heroin, Opioid and Cocaine Task Force - Ald. Michael Murphy - Jun 4th, 2018
- Brad Schimel and Scott Walker Repeat Mistakes Past; Refuse to Take Legal Action Against Opioid Manufacturers - One Wisconsin Now - Jun 4th, 2018
- State Awards $2.4 Million For Opioid Treatment - Danielle Kaeding - Jun 2nd, 2018
- Campaign Cash: State Politicians Funded by Accused Drug Makers - Wisconsin Democracy Campaign - May 26th, 2018
- City-County Plan Targets Opioid Epidemic - Edgar Mendez - May 22nd, 2018
- Brad Schimel Election Ad Blames Families, Not His Pharmaceutical Donors for Opioid Crisis - One Wisconsin Now - May 17th, 2018
- Governor Walker Announces 10% Drop in Opioid Prescriptions Dispensed Over the Past Year - Gov. Scott Walker - May 16th, 2018
- Cocaine Overdose Deaths Have Nearly Tripled - Ximena Conde - May 15th, 2018
- Bryce Calls on Steil to To Reject Donations from Pharmaceutical Companies Fueling the Opioid Crisis - Randy Bryce - May 9th, 2018
- U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin and Bill Cassidy Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Halt the Flow of Illicit Fentanyl into the U.S. - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Apr 24th, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Joins Colleagues to Call on Administration to Take Immediate Action to Reduce Price of Life-Saving Opioid Overdose Reversal Drug - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Apr 20th, 2018
- Opioid Crisis: The House Where Addicts Die - Isiah Holmes - Apr 18th, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Helps Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Address the Opioid Crisis - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Apr 17th, 2018
- Op Ed: Stronger Action Needed on Opioid Crisis - Matt Flynn - Apr 14th, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Helps Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Allow Safe Disposal of Unwanted Drugs in Hospice - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Apr 13th, 2018
- Leah Attends Opioid Taskforce Meeting about Alternative Treatments to Pain - State Sen. Leah Vukmir - Apr 13th, 2018
- Walker Signs Vukmir Bill Battling Opioid Crisis - State Sen. Leah Vukmir - Apr 10th, 2018
- Combating the Opioid Crisis: Governor Walker Signs Bipartisan Bills on Opioids into Law - Gov. Scott Walker - Apr 9th, 2018
- Bipartisan Alternative Drug Treatment Program Signed Into Law - State Rep. Evan Goyke - Apr 3rd, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Hosts Roundtable with Green Bay Officials on Fighting the Opioid Epidemic - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Apr 2nd, 2018
- U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin, Todd Young and Edward Markey Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Fight Opioid-Related Infectious Diseases - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Mar 23rd, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Announces New Funding for Wisconsin to Combat the Opioid Epidemic - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Mar 22nd, 2018
- Vukmir Battles Opioid Epidemic - State Sen. Leah Vukmir - Mar 20th, 2018
- Supervisor Peggy West: Time to Hold Drug Makers Accountable - Sup. Peggy A. West - Mar 14th, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin to Health Insurers: Step Up Response to Opioid Epidemic - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Mar 5th, 2018
- Latest Report Highlights 20 Percent Decrease in Opioid Prescriptions Dispensed from 2015 to 2017 - Gov. Scott Walker - Mar 2nd, 2018
- Tracking Opioid Deaths by ZIP Code - Isiah Holmes - Mar 1st, 2018
- Governor Walker Discusses the Opioid Epidemic at Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs Conference - Gov. Scott Walker - Feb 5th, 2018
- Vukmir, Nygren Lead Efforts to Combat the Opioid Epidemic - State Sen. Leah Vukmir - Jan 19th, 2018
- Governor Walker Takes Additional Action to Fight Opioid Crisis - Gov. Scott Walker - Jan 19th, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Calls on President Trump To Renew The Opioid Public Health Emergency - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Jan 12th, 2018
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Calls on President Trump to Sign Bipartisan Legislation Passed by Congress to Help Halt Flow of Illicit Fentanyl into the United States - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Dec 22nd, 2017
- Drug-Related Deaths To Hit 420 in 2017 - Edgar Mendez - Dec 21st, 2017
- U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Joins Bipartisan Group of Senators Urging Congressional Leadership to Commit Resources to Opioid Epidemic - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Dec 15th, 2017
- Murphy’s Law: Brad Schimel’s Opioid Problem - Bruce Murphy - Nov 14th, 2017
- Op Ed: State Leaves Counties to Sue Drug Companies - State Senators Janet Bewley and Dave Hansen - Nov 11th, 2017
- Special Report: Opioid Crisis Hits City Hard - Edgar Mendez - Nov 9th, 2017
- Opioid Crisis Still Growing - Dave Fidlin - Oct 30th, 2017
- Op Ed: Nygren, Sidener Dramatize Opioid Problem - Casey Hoff - Oct 18th, 2017
- Op Ed: The Heroin and Opioid Crisis Is Real - Isiah Holmes - Aug 28th, 2017
- The State of Politics: John Nygren’s War on Drug Abuse - Steven Walters - Jul 10th, 2017
- Op Ed: Opioid Crisis Demands Bipartisan Solutions - Jeff Plale - Feb 24th, 2017
- Prescription Drugs Lead Way to Heroin - Wyatt Massey - Mar 17th, 2016
- Heroin Deaths Up 241% Since 2010 - Wyatt Massey - Mar 16th, 2016