Shocker: Today's Typical Heroin User is Young and White

By Victoria Kim 05/29/14

No longer an inner city problem, heroin has become almost exclusively the scourge of middle-class suburbia.

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Today’s typical heroin user is young, white, and suburban, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

In January, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin declared in his state of the state address that they are in the midst of a "full-blown heroin crisis." In 2012, heroin killed 21 people in Maine and caused 40 recorded overdoses in New Hampshire. That same year, Vermont’s Health Department reported that 914 people were treated for heroin abuse, an increase of almost 40 percent from the previous year. Without a doubt, heroin has made a comeback in the smaller cities and towns in New England, and across the country.

The study surveyed 9,000 patients at treatment centers across the country and found that 90 percent of heroin users were white men and women. They were also relatively young, with the average age being 23. “Heroin is not an inner-city problem anymore,” said Dr. Theodore Cicero, a psychiatrist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who led the study.

It seems the unintended consequences of the medical community’s enthusiastic prescribing of prescription medication to patients is finally emerging, affecting everyone from young people to the elderly. Three-quarters of respondents said their heroin habit began with abusing prescription opioids like Oxycontin. Respondents said they turned to heroin because it was cheaper and easier to obtain than prescription pills. According to Cicero, an Oxycontin pill can cost $80 on the street, while a hit of heroin is just $10 and can provide a better high. “There needs to be a little more stepping back before prescribing an opioid,” Cicero said.

“The time has come for us to stop quietly averting our eyes from the growing heroin addiction in our front yards while we fear and fight treatment facilities in our backyards,” Shumlin said in his state address. Cicero agrees that better mental health treatment for people at risk of addiction should be a public health priority.

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