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Heroin Use Becomes a New Back-To-School Concern

September 20, 2009 08:00 AM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
The sharp increase in teenage heroin use, both in big cities and small towns, has become a grave concern for parents and educators as kids return to school.

Heroin Abuse Becomes a National Concern

As the new school year begins, parents and teachers have a new cause for concern: heroin use among teenagers. Previously available mostly in big cities, heroin has been steadily spreading to smaller towns, particularly in the areas of New England and the mid-Atlantic, Jessica Calefati reports for U.S. News and World Report. “Many of these young addicts get started on prescription drugs, move on to cheap heroin that can be snorted, and end up injecting it for a more potent high,” she explains.

During the first half of 2009, Nassau County in Long Island, N.Y., saw a total of 27 heroin-related deaths, “more than the number of drunk driving-related and homicide deaths combined,” Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi and Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey announced in a press release in July. As Suozzi explained, Nassau County has “seen a significant increase in usage among 19- to 25-year olds. [The drug] is cheaper and stronger than ever before.”

The sharp increase in the number of heroin-related deaths has led Nassau’s authorities to organize a strict crackdown on heroin possession. As of July 24, Nassau police officers arrested 243 people for heroin possession and confiscated 66,000 bags of heroin. “[L]osing almost four people a month to heroin overdoses is just not acceptable,” Suozzi concludes.

Similarly, schools in the Chicago area have recognized heroin use as a dangerous issue and have attempted to “bring the community together to acknowledge the problem which…will take efforts from parents, teachers and law enforcement to tackle,” Annemarie Mannion reported for the Chicago Tribune. According to Steven Neubauer, police chief in Elmhurst, Ill., “Chicago’s west side has open air drug markets that are easily accessible to teens.”

Background: OxyContin: a bridge to heroin

Why the sharp increase in heroin usage? Suozzi mentions the cheap price and easy availability of the drug, which “sells on the street for less than a 6-pack of beer, about $5.00 to $6.00,” making it affordable for teenagers. Similarly, the purity of the product available for sale on the streets has created “a shift from injecting heroin to snorting or smoking it,” making its consumption easier and less conspicuous.

An easy accessibility to prescription opiates such as OxyContin, common in household medicine cabinets and easily obtainable through illicit sale, is also seen as a contributing factor. OxyContin, a prescription drug that comes in the form of pills that can be either chewed or mashed and snorted, is meant to “ease severe pain over 12 hours, [and] produces a sudden, powerful high similar to heroin,” Jim Lewis and Gary Lenton reported for The Patriot-News in 2005. The transition from OxyContin to heroin is common: In comparison to the $20 to $40 charged for one OxyContin tablet on the street, heroin can produce the same kind of high for only $6. 

Dr. Clifford A. Bernstein, a practitioner in California specializing in detox methods, told The Patriot-News that OxyContin “has become glamorous,” citing the fact that the drug was mentioned on “The OC,” a TV series about Southern California teens.

“It's really become a cultural icon," Bernstein said. “It's the drug of the decade. You can act intelligent. You're not acting drunk or noticeably high. And you don't have a hangover. It's a nice, clean drug to abuse.”

Reactions: A parent speaks out

A drug abuse forum on the popular medical site WebMD features a post by a distraught mother who recently lost her daughter to a heroin overdose. In her post, she emphasizes the prevalence of heroin use among teenagers all over the U.S., and how hard it can be for parents to detect. “I just hope you all keep your eyes open about your teens and drugs. It’s not pot.... now, it’s become heroin,” she warns.

Related Topic: Red flags of heroin use

As Mary Willis, writing for the Web site Drug Rehabs, explains, the warning signs of heroin use can include behavioral changes, such as excessive sleeping, withdrawal and isolation. Other indicators might include paranoia, lack of appetite and withdrawal symptoms, such as “nausea, vomiting, hyperventilation, chills, body aches and extreme restlessness,” she writes.

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