According to recently released numbers from the Centers for Disease Control, the number of people dying from painkillers is falling but there's a big increase in the number of people dying from heroin overdose which has once again become a popular drug of choice because it is cheaper and more accessible than prescription pills and heroin use has been branded at epidemic levels in New York State.
To demonstrate the return of heroin as a deadly drug, the number of painkiller deaths went from 4,030 in 1999 to 16,917 in 2011. But in 2012, prescription pill deaths dropped five percent to 16,007. But the CDC reports that heroin deaths jumped 35 percent from 2011 to 2012, going from 4,397 to 5,927.
Part of the explanation for heroin's comeback here in New York and across the country is the result of the crackdown by law enforcement on pain pills which has made those medications less accessible and more expensive than heroin, according to experts, causing drug users to return to heroin.
So the war on prescription drug abuse may be fueling the heroin epidemic, especially among young people, because drug users with a dependency on opioids have gone back to heroin because it is more available and cheaper. That may be happening right here in Western New York as well as across the state and the nation.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo last June, citing the state's heroin epidemic numbers, nearly doubled officers in the State Police drug enforcement unit and urged training for first responders in the use of the anti-overdose drug naloxone.
Cuomo's concerns preceded the release of Health Dept. figures showing a huge increase in the number of people being treated for heroin and other opiate addictions at state-certified facilities.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse describes heroin as an illegal and highly addictive drug processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of certain varieties of poppy plants.
"They're selling it in $5 bags, $10 bags," said Cuomo. It's more potent than it was and it's more diverse than it was." And deadly, with deaths from heroin use doubling from 215 in 2008 to 478 in 2012, according to state figures.
According to Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein, "heroin overdoses, as well as overdoses from opioids such as hydrocodone, continue to plague our community. In addition, we are also encountering instances where the heroin has most likely been cut with fentanyl, a drug that can be anywhere from 10 to 100 times more potent than morphine." The challenge is finding ways to get the message to the drug users, she said, and requires a cooperative effort.
As part of the effort to deal with the growing heroin problem, in September Gov. Cuomo launched the Combat Heroin website, www.combatheroin.ny.gov, a part of the state's anti-heroin legislation signed into law last June.
The website contains tips on prevention, warning signs of use, and identifies resources available for help and treatment. And there is the constant presence on the site of the hotline number, 877-846-7369, where people can call 24 hours a day for help.
Heroin is highly addictive and addicts usually inject the drug into a vein via a needle, but it can be smoked or snorted and is extremely hard to withdraw from or quit altogether. The withdrawal fight comes down to fighting for one's life but it is a war that can and has been won and there are many agencies and medical professionals available throughout the area to help anyone who wants to try to regain their lives and live.
The state hotline, 877-846-7369, can guide users, friends, family members, and others who are looking for help to help save a life before heroin claims another victim, many of them in their early years of life. There is precious little time to waste because the addiction will eventually kill the user, and death will not be pretty.