Washington Sees Heroin Spike After Painkiller Crackdown

By Valerie Tejeda 06/13/13

Tougher painkiller laws driving drug users to heroin is a growing national trend.

It can start with a prescription pill. Photo via

Rising heroin use in Washington may be due to the state's recent crackdown on prescription painkillers, according to researchers at University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. Washington was one of the first states to impose strict regulations on the prescription of commonly-abused opiates like oxycodone, requiring patients to see pain-management specialists and requiring random drug tests to ensure the painkillers are not abused. Since the restrictions were put in place, researchers say they have seen a decrease in abuse of prescription drugs, but a rise in heroin abuse. "We were either progressive or regressive with that aggressive effort to reign in opiate prescribing before a lot of the country," says researcher Caleb Banta-Green who previously served as senior science adviser at the Office of National Drug Control Policy." It shows if you enact these laws, you get some of the intended effects—high school sophomores have significantly decreased the rate at which they're abusing prescription opiates, but people are also diverted to heroin." In the state, the number of drug tests from criminal suspects sent to the state crime lab that have tested positive for heroin jumped 167%—from 842 cases in 2007 to 2,251 in 2012.

However, researchers are still optimistic that the stricter opiate laws will eventually be beneficial, since first-time drug users are more likely to become addicted to prescription painkillers and "graduate" to heroin, rather than to start off abusing heroin. "We know that people go from prescriptions to heroin," says Banta-Green, "If they're not getting initially exposed, that's a good thing." States such as Oregon, Florida, and New York have also seen an increase in heroin use since toughening prescription painkiller laws. Many reports in recent years suggest heroin use is rising across the US, and increasingly moving beyond urban areas in to small towns and suburbs.

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Entertainment journalist and author Valerie Tejeda spends her days reporting on books, television, and all things pertaining to pop culture, and spends her nights writing novels for teens. Her stories have appeared on a variety of different publications, including but not limited to: VanityFair, MTV, The Huffington Post, TeenVogue, She Knows, Latina, The Fix, Salon.com, Cosmopolitan, and more. You can find Valerie on Linkedin and Twitter.