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Heroin's Deadly Impact Hits Home In Southwestern Pennsylvania

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Heroin related deaths in the U.S. have tripled from 2010 to 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overdoses are now the leading cause of death for people 24 to 44 in Western Pennsylvania, mainly in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, showing that heroin use is no longer just an inner-city problem. Data from the University of Pittsburgh underscore the demographic shift: 65% percent of people dying from heroin overdoses in the Pittsburgh region are men (35% women), most are white, and their ages range from teens up to the early 70s. 

Sam Quinones, author of Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, says the problem originates not from street gangs and drug trafficking, but in suburban medicine cabinets.

“We were a country in pain,” Quinones says. “We had the tools to treat it. There were certain pain crusaders who really believed we needed to liberalize, very aggressively, the prescribing of pain pills.”

Prior to the 1990s, Quinones says, prescriptions for pain medications were all but nonexistent. But pharmaceutical companies convinced doctors that painkillers were “virtually not addictive,” and now the drugs are prescribed for everything from cancer to post-surgical recovery.

“These drugs have been prescribed like a firehose for a good 20 years now,” Quinones says.

Patients who become dependent on Oxycodone and Hydrocodone, synthetic opiates that are chemically similar to heroin, can spend up to $200 per day to keep up with their growing tolerance. But because heroin imported from Colombia or Mexico costs 1/5 to 1/10 of the street price of Oxycodone, many users make the switch because they simply cannot afford the pills.

The availability of old prescription painkillers kept in medicine cabinets has also been a factor in increased rates of addiction.  It is simply an issue of too much supply. 

“You’re never introduced to these pills in the 1980s,” Quinones says. “You had to be part of this kind of drug underworld. Now you trip over it in suburban high schools.”

So what can be done to help stop early abuse of prescription drugs? Jeanine Buchanich, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health says several local police stations offer drug take back programs, where unused prescriptions can be dropped off to avoid being stolen from medicine cabinets or trash.

Quinones adds that being vocal about controlling the prescribing of prescription pain killers may be another step in eventually preventing addiction.

“There seems to me to be ample opportunity here to ask the private sector, or force the private sector, to step up in doing more about this.”

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