Heroin Abuse Prevention & Treatment Programs

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Heroin was originally developed as a pain relieving medicine, but was found to be highly addictive. Its use is now illegal. This lesson looks at heroin abuse prevention and treatment programs.

Heroin: The History

Heroin use is up over the last few years in the United States. In fact, over 8,000 people died from using heroin in 2013. Those are the latest numbers available from the Centers for Disease Control, and represent a 39% increase over 2012.

Heroin is known as an inherently dangerous drug, but it wasn't always. Heroin was designed to be a powerfully effective pain reliever without being addictive. That was in the late 1800s, when morphine was the most popularly used pain medication. For the most part, heroin was intended to be a safer form of morphine.

Both morphine and heroin are opioid drugs, which are narcotic pain relieving medications that work by blocking pain messages to the user's brain. Opioids affect the part of the brain that signals pleasure and reward. This means concentrated doses can both block pain and bring the user feelings of euphoria, which is a feeling of intense excitement and elation. This euphoria is what some users describe as the 'high'. This feeling is one reason both morphine and heroin are highly addictive, despite early thoughts about the safety of the drugs.

Heroin was widely available at first, without a prescription. However, the U.S. soon experienced extensive heroin abuse and addiction. Heroin was completely outlawed in 1924, but that may have been too late. One study showed there were around 200,000 heroin addicts in the U.S. in 1925. There's been a steady black market for heroin in the U.S. since that time.

Heroin sold on the street in the U.S. is often a brownish or white powder.

Heroin Prevention

Most experts agree that the best way to decrease heroin use in the U.S. is to simply keep people from becoming new users. The key is drug abuse prevention. There are a number of heroin specific drug prevention programs.

Many of these programs focus on teaching young people the risks associated with heroin use. In one Chicago area high school, where students experienced three heroin overdose deaths in just six months, many students reported not knowing or appreciating the dangers. Many wrongly believed sniffing or snorting heroin was a less addictive method of using heroin than injecting the drug. Many more reported having no prior drug prevention education and no knowledge that opioids could result in addiction with even brief use.

Drug prevention specialists hope that education will deter new users. Specifically, many programs highlight these risks:

  • Heroin causes slowed breathing, sometimes suppressing breathing altogether and causing death.
  • Injecting heroin poses disease risks associated with dirty needles, such as AIDS and hepatitis.
  • Injecting heroin causes collapsed veins, bacterial infections, liver and kidney disease.
  • Around one-quarter of people who use heroin - even once - become addicted to it.

Heroin Dependency Treatment

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there may be over 450,000 heroin dependent or addicted people in the U.S. Keep in mind, though, that there is a slight difference between the two. The difference often dictates the user's drug abuse treatment plan.

Heroin dependence occurs when a user develops a physical tolerance to heroin and needs a higher dose in order to achieve the desired effect. When a dependent user tries to cut back or stop using heroin, she will experience withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headaches and overall pain. These physical symptoms tell her body it needs more of the drug in order to function. Dependence normally requires a detoxification process, which is a method for slowly weaning the body off heroin. Detoxification most often takes place through an in-patient, medical facility.

Heroin dependency is sometimes treated through pharmacological approaches, which refers to drug treatment through the use of prescription medications. There are several medications used to treat opioid dependency or addiction. The medications include:

  • Methadone, which is an 'opioid agonist,' this means it works by stimulating the same brain receptors stimulated by heroin, and helps lessen withdrawal symptoms.
  • Buprenorphine, which is a 'partial opioid agonist,' it is designed to lessen drug cravings without actually producing the euphoric 'high' or the dangerous side effects associated with heroin.
  • Naltrexone, which is an 'opioid antagonist,' this means it blocks the effects of heroin.

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