Why Heroin Is So Addictive

Drug syringe and cooked heroin on spoon


Dear Heroin,

I never want to touch you ever again, you’ve ruined my life, made me steal from my family, on probation ‘cause of you, why I choose you I don’t know?

You’re the worst thing that ever came into my life. Yes, I did love you, but now it’s time to say goodbye.”

~Hannah Meredith, A Letter to Heroin Hannah wrote this letter in her diary just days before she had a fatal overdose. She was only 17 years old.

If you were to ask the average person on the street what they know about heroin, most people would probably tell you that it was a terrible drug used in the past – the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s.

They wouldn’t have much to say about its prevalence today, when society has to deal with meth labs popping up everywhere, synthetic drugs like bath salts, and the increasingly-legal status of marijuana.

To most people, heroin is an outdated relic from the distant past.

Unfortunately, most people would be wrong.

Don’t Call It a Comeback – It’s Been Here for Years

“I think the most important driver behind the increase in number of people using heroin is it’s cheap, widely available, and sure enough to snort.”

~Dr. Melinda Campopiano, SAMHSA Medical Officer

In the last decade of the 20th century, it seemed as if heroin went out of style, but it is definitely back – and with a vengeance. In 2013, over 700,000 US citizens used heroin. That’s more than double the amount of users a decade ago.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recently reported that heroin usage among teens aged 12-17 has increased by 80%. The National Center for Health Statistics has released related data indicating that the rate of heroin overdose fatalities tripled between 2010 and 2013.

One major factor in the heroin’s resurgence is the boom in prescription drug abuse. Typically, medications such as the painkiller OxyContin and other similar opioids are misused or abused by millions of US patients.

In an attempt to curtail prescription medication abuse, officials have tightened up on prescribing practices. Because doctors must now first check patient databases to safeguard against “shoppers” seeking multiple prescriptions, pills with a risk of abuse are becoming harder to obtain.

Continuing that effort, OxyContin has been remade with a new formula, thereby making it more difficult to misuse.

To fulfill their addicted need for an opioid fix, many prescription medication abusers are now turning to heroin, which provides a more potent effect at a lower cost. Two-thirds of all individuals addicted to heroin were abusers of prescription painkillers first, and people who have abused prescription painkillers are 19 times more likely to try heroin.

Another factor in heroin’s return in America has is the increase in supply, which in turn makes it that much more readily available. In the last decade and a half, the amount of land in Mexico dedicated to growing the opium poppies used to make heroin increased tenfold. 2007-2011, Mexico’s production rate of raw opium increased by a factor of six. Mexico is now the world’s second-largest producer of opium.

What You Need to Know about Heroin

“If you have never been addicted, you can have no clear idea what it means to need junk with the addict’s special need. You don’t decide to be an addict. One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict.”

~William S. Burroughs, Junky

Heroin has a reputation of being perhaps the most addictive drug on the planet. It is labeled an “opioid” because it is made from morphine, but it can be four times more powerful, and its effects are felt much more rapidly.

Out on the street, morphine is known by several names – “smack”, “horse”, “H”, “boy”, and “black tar”. It can be medically effective as a pain reliever, especially for those with late-stage cancer or some other terminal illness, but when it is misused, most often by injecting or snorting the crushed pills, heroin produces a powerful “downer” effect characterized by an intense, nearly-transcendent feeling of euphoria.

Heroin attaches to the body’s “opioid receptors”—specific proteins found on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, and other organs. Once attached, heroin and other opioids reduce the body’s ability to perceive pain, and because they affect the “reward” regions of the brain, the drugs also produce a general feeling of pleasure and well-being.

With chronic use—or worse, misuse—heroin and other opioids inhibit the body’s ability to naturally produce its own “pleasure” chemicals. This suppression contributes greatly to the severity of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

Heroin Abuse in the United States

To fully understand how much of an epidemic heroin use in the United States has become, one only has to look at the following statistics:

  • Heroin use in the US increased from 370,000 yearly users in 2007 to 669,000 in 2012.
  • “Past month”—usage within the last 30 days—of heroin in the United States doubled in the six-year period between 2007-2012, increasing from 161,000 to 335,000.
  • Within the past decade, the number of first-time heroin users has increased from around 90,000 per year to 156,000, a spike of nearly 60%
  • Between 2006 and 2010, heroin overdose deaths increased by 45%.
  • Approximately 20% of primary treatment admissions in America are for heroin and other opiates, accounting for the largest percentage of drug-related admissions.

Signs of Heroin Abuse

All drug addictions have harmful effects on the addict as the drug destroys both their body and mind. Signs of heroin abuse include:

  • pinpoint pupils
  • unexplained weight loss
  • constant runny nose
  • visible needle “tracks” on the body, especially on inside of the arms
  • open sores
  • a disrupted or abnormal menstrual cycle
  • shortness of breath
  • a “droopy” or slumped appearance, as if the person’s limbs are abnormally heavy
  • confusion/disorientation
  • dry mouth
  • an alternating cycle of “hyper-alertness” and nodding off/passing out
  • sudden changes behaviors and actions
  • unneeded syringes
  • metal spoons or aluminum foil with burn marks
  • glass pipes
  • small plastic bags with white residue or powder
  • excessive sleeping