The number of recorded heroin overdose deaths nearly doubled from 1,842 in 2000 to 3,036 in 2010, according to the most recent statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heroin deaths still account for a relatively small percentage of total drug overdose deaths: less than 10 percent in 2010, for example.
Last month, the governor of Vermont devoted almost his entire State of the State address to the state’s heroin problem, calling on the Legislature to pass laws encouraging treatment and seek ideas on the best way to prevent people from becoming addicted.
The striking thing about heroin’s most recent incarnation is that a drug that was once largely confined to major cities is spreading into suburban and rural towns across America, where it is used predominantly by young adults between the ages of 18 and 29, said Jim Hall, an epidemiologist who studies substance abuse at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“We haven’t really seen something this rapid since probably the spread of cocaine and crack in the mid-1980s,” Hall said.
The very first American heroin users in the early 20th century were white, working-class residents of New York City, which was the epicenter of heroin use for much of the century and the key entry point to the U.S. market.
Heroin is processed from morphine, which itself is derived from the opium poppy. It originated in inner-city Chinese opium dens in the late 1800s, when people switched from opium smoking to heroin because it was much easier to smuggle. The drug was even marketed by the Bayer Co. in 1898 as the “wonder drug” of the arriving 20th century, sold as a cure for the wracking cough caused by tuberculosis.
Schneider 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 surge of heroin use among young white people in New York’s East Village and in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Crime spiked among heroin users who were desperate to keep up the habit.