Heroin use taking a toll on Pennsylvania

Heroin Across America
In this August 1971 file photo, American troops who are addicted to heroin sit together at a U.S. Army amnesty center in Long Binh, Vietnam. Heroin’s reputation in the 1970s was “a really hard-core, dangerous street drug, a killer drug, but there’s a whole generation who didn’t grow up with that kind of experience with heroin,” said New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan, whose office was created in 1971 in response to heroin use and related crime. “It’s been glamorized, certainly much more than it was during the ’70s.” (AP Photo/Neal Ulevich)

Some states are reporting a rise in heroin use as many addicts shift from more costly and harder-to-get prescription opiates to this cheaper alternative. A look at what’s happening in Pennsylvania:


Law enforcement officials and health professionals agree – heroin use is on the rise in Pennsylvania.

Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, a leading lawmaker on drug abuse issues, calls its use “epidemic, no question about it.” The attorney general’s office says most of its current drug cases are heroin-related, and the office has made more than 300 heroin arrests since the start of 2013. This year, about two dozen deaths in Pittsburgh and surrounding counties were blamed on heroin laced with the painkiller fentanyl.

Deb Beck of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization says the current rise in heroin use appears to differ from previous patterns. “Heroin prevalence would come and go and then simmer back down again,” Beck said. “I’m not sure that’s going to happen this time because the prescription medication is driving the heroin problem.”


Hard numbers on heroin use and deaths are difficult to come by in Pennsylvania. The 2012-13 annual report from the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs said heroin has been rising in popularity. Four years ago, 20 percent of those newly admitted for drug treatment cited heroin as their primary substance of abuse. The rate has increased to 23.5 percent. The attorney general’s office says Pennsylvania has about 40,000 heroin users.


Bills are pending in the Legislature to establish a prescription drug database to track opiates and discourage doctor and pharmacist shopping; to give police, firefighters and family members access to the heroin-overdose antidote naloxone; and to provide limited immunity from legal liability to people who call for help when someone is overdosing.

US Heroin Resurgence
In this Sept. 22, 1957 file photo, police Detectives John Matassa, center and Sheldon Teller, right, examine the arms of a suspected narcotics addict and dealer in New York. Eric Schneider, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania said after World War II, heroin became a drug primarily used by Blacks and Puerto Ricans in the Northeast and by Mexican Americans in the West. In the late 1960s, at the height of the hippie drug experimentation era, there was a resurgence of heroin use among young White people in the East Village and in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. (AP Photo)

5 things to know about heroin use, getting help 

Long a scourge of the back alleys of American life, heroin is spreading across the country. The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in February only underscored a problem many American communities already were combatting: the rising use of — and deaths from — heroin. Here are five things to know about this issue:


The number of past-year heroin users in the U.S. has risen from 373,000 in 2007 to 669,000 in 2012, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA.


Overdose deaths involving heroin rose 45 percent between 2006 and 2010, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently described the problem as “an urgent and growing public health crisis,” as he called for more first responders to carry an antidote that can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose. But federal statistics also show that in 2010, heroin accounted for less than 10 percent of all drug overdose deaths.


The average age for those using heroin for the first time was 23, according to a 2012 national survey sponsored by SAMHSA. In contrast, it was about 18 for marijuana, 19 for LSD and 20 for cocaine.


Heroin is considered far more difficult to obtain than other drugs for younger people. In 2012, nearly half of those 12 to 17 in the national SAMHSA survey said it would be “fairly easy” or “very easy” for them to get marijuana. Only about 1 in 10 said heroin would be that readily available. The 2012 survey also found that from 2002 to 2012, all drugs — marijuana, cocaine, crack, LSD and heroin — became less available. In that 10-year period, the availability of heroin fell from nearly 16 percent to 10 percent.


The Partnership at Drugfree.org has a toll-free helpline — 1-855-378-43731-855-378-4373 (DRUGFREE) — that offers assistance to families concerned about a teen’s drug use or drinking. Trained specialists can help parents outline plans for prevention, intervention and other services. They also can direct parents to local and national resources. The English-Spanish helpline is open Monday through Friday, 10:00 am to 6:00 p.m. Eastern time. SAMHSA has a 24-hour hotline — 1-800-662-HELP1-800-662-HELP (4357) — and a directory of more than 11,000 alcohol and drug addiction treatment facilities and programs at https://www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov .

Fast facts about some obstacles to heroin sobriety

Treatment facilities are packed. Inpatient rehab is costly. Insurance companies have refused coverage. Addicts looking to get clean from heroin often face an uphill battle. A look at the process, and some of the obstacles to getting sober:

WITHDRAWAL: Once in withdrawal, users feel like their bones are breaking. Fluids leak from every orifice. They sweat and get the chills and shakes. The withdrawal itself doesn’t kill, but if addicts can’t persevere, they often go back to heroin, with lowered tolerance, and many overdose.

LACK OF BEDS: The number of people using heroin in the U.S. nearly doubled from 2007 to 2012 to some 669,000 people, and more people are also now seeking treatment. But of the 23.1 million Americans who needed treatment for drugs or alcohol in 2012, only 2.5 million people received aid at a specialty facility. There simply aren’t enough beds at treatment facilities to meet the demand. There are about 12,000 addiction treatment programs nationwide, according to the nonprofit Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia. Of those, about 10 percent are residential facilities, about 80 percent are outpatient programs and about 10 percent are methadone clinics.

INSURANCE BATTLES: While most insurance policies state that they allow coverage of up to 30 days in a residential drug treatment center, nobody actually gets those 30 days, said Tom McLellan, CEO of the Treatment Research Institute. The average duration in residential care is 11 to 14 days.

THE COST: A 30-day inpatient stay can cost as little as $5,000, but the average cost is about $30,000. The cost of heroin detoxification alone, which usually takes three to five days, is around $3,000. Most clinics require payment upfront if insurance can’t be used.


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