Last week, I sat in on two support-group meetings conducted by Learn To Cope, an organization dedicated to providing information and guidance to the parents and family members of children addicted to opiates and other drugs.
Recently, a cluster of heroin overdoses and deaths on the South Shore of Massachusetts captured public attention and focused both citizens and local and state officials on the issues of drug use, prevention and treatment.
Since 1996, when opiate-based prescription painkillers like OxyContin were introduced into wide use, illicit use of opiates has increased. Especially in suburbs and rural areas, misuse of OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Demerol and codeine among young people ages 12 to 25 became significant. An estimated 15 percent of high school seniors have tried prescription drugs (for fun) within the past year.
As the availability of opioid prescriptions has become more restricted — a deliberate crackdown — and the street price of those drugs has climbed, youthful addicts have increasingly turned to heroin. It is a well-known pattern: experiment with a variety of Vicodin, Adderall, Ecstasy, weed and hallucinogens and end up hooked mostly on the opiates. As the addict’s tolerance to the chemicals increases, he needs bigger and more frequent doses to attain the same high. Eventually, his budget, drug availability and the maturing strength of his habit lead him to heroin (cheaper and purer), which at first he just snorts or smokes. Ultimately, the addict moves to needles, which provide the fastest, most powerful drug delivery.
The grip of opiate addiction is fearsome. An opiate habit causes long-term changes in the structure and functioning of the brain. A full-blown addict is helpless not to lie, cheat, steal, sell his or her body, or do just about anything to procure the drug. Seeking heroin becomes the primary purpose in life.