A member of my extended family died recently from a heroin overdose.
“P” lived in the Northeast, and had struggled with drugs before. But he turned to heroin toward the end, according to a family member. He was 33.
I always thought it was the drug that was hardest to control, where people literally took their lives into their hands, consigning themselves to a mad game of chance in which there are no winners.
The drug is often associated in the public mind either with impoverished street people or with famous entertainers. Some big names in show business (e.g., Ray Charles, Robert Downey Jr.) have survived heroin, but others (Janis Joplin, John Belushi) have lost their lives to the drug.
Yet a recent CDC report said use of heroin has surged over the past decade. And astonishingly, some of the greatest increases occurred in groups with historically low rates of heroin use: women, the privately insured, and people with higher incomes.
Since 2010, increased availability of heroin has been accompanied by a decline in price and an increase in purity, the report said.
Overall, between 2002 and 2013, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled, and more than 8,200 people died in 2013, the CDC reported.
Heroin use more than doubled among young adults ages 18–25 in the past decade.
More than 90 percent of people who used heroin also used at least one other drug.
In all, more than 500,000 people used heroin in 2013, up nearly 150 percent since 2007, the report said.
Heroin use remains high for poor young men living in cities. It reminds me of scenes from the HBO drama “The Wire,’’ where African-American youths are trapped in the street drug trade.
Georgia isn’t immune, certainly. Use of heroin has increased here, too, says Rick Allen of the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency.
Reasons for that rise include the crackdown on prescription drug abuse, says Dr. Ron Bloodworth, a consulting psychiatrist in Macon with RiverMend Health, an addiction treatment organization. Drug abusers now are turning more to heroin, which also is cheap, he adds.
“Heroin is really a bad actor,’’ Bloodworth says. “The tragic thing is it’s like getting a Trojan virus in your brain.”
“Atlanta is one of the big cities where [heroin] is beginning to re-emerge again,’’ he says. “Then it spreads out to other areas of the state.”
Using the drug is not necessarily a death sentence. Sissy Weldon, 27, of Atlanta has been in recovery for more than three years from her addiction to opiate drugs, including heroin. After about a month of heroin, Weldon says, she checked into treatment.
“I have multiple friends who have recovered from opiate and heroin addiction,” says Weldon, who works for the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse.
Last year, Georgia became the 15th state to enact a medical amnesty law granting limited prosecutorial immunity to people who seek help during a drug or alcohol overdose. It also extended legal protections to people who administer naloxone, an anti-overdose drug.
When the CDC report on heroin appeared last month, the agency’s director, Dr. Tom Frieden, said, “It’s heartbreaking to see injection drug use making a comeback in the U.S.”
P’s death was truly heartbreaking to his family.
It’s a reminder that a powerful killer is on the loose, looking to do more damage.