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An Epidemic of Dual Addiction: Heroin and Prescription Painkillers

The history of addiction to heroin and prescription painkillers like Vicodin is a history that has always been intertwined. The heroin epidemic would not be what it is today had it not been for prescription painkillers, and the opiate painkiller addiction epidemic would not be what it is today had it not been for heroin.

Heroin and Prescription Painkillers

Heroin and prescription painkillers share the same or similar chemical foundation. Modern-day doctors have even coined the phrase “Heroin Lite” to refer to prescription painkillers. This sentence is a humorous play on the idea of rather than having something like pure Coca-Cola, (heroin), why not have Diet Coke, (prescription painkillers)? Prescription painkillers are more available now than they perhaps ever have been before, and certainly more people are addicted to them now than ever before.

People use heroin because of the slow euphoria, the calming sensation, the dulled haze, the pain relief, the emotion-dampening, etc. In reality, though, people abuse prescription painkillers for the same reasons. These drugs share their same chemical make-up, and they produce similar results. When a person cannot get one, they go to the other. When they cannot afford one, they go to the other. When they get caught with one, they go to the other. With heroin and prescription painkillers, addicts always have a backup plan!

While neither of these drugs is necessarily new, the rampant, skyrocketing, back and forth abuse of them by millions of Americans is new. Stephen E. Lankenau, a sociologist at Drexel University who studied and surveyed young, addicted people was quoted saying that:

“The old-school user, before the 1990s, mostly used just heroin, and if there was none around, went through withdrawal. Today, users switch back and forth, to pills then back to heroin when it’s available, and back again. The two have become integrated.”

What we have here is an epidemic of dual addiction, an epidemic of back and forth drug abuse, making it that much harder to help these people. “Why go to rehab if, when I run out of heroin I can just go get painkillers?” “Why seek out treatment if I use all my pain pills, but there is heroin readily available?” These are the thought processes of opiate addicts in the 21st century, and it is killing them.

The History of Heroin

Heroin is not a new drug. It may be newly popular once again in the U.S. after almost a decade of inactivity, but heroin has been in use for decades, and opium, the core ingredient to heroin that makes it psychoactive (mind-altering), has been cultivated since 3400 BCE.

Modern-day heroin was thought to be first synthesized in 1874 by C.R. Alder Wright, an English chemist. He was working at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School at the time, and he had been trying to synthesize stronger forms of morphine. He stumbled across a far more potent, acetylated form of morphine, now called “diacetylmorphine” or morphine diacetate, which is the chemical name for heroin.

It wasn’t until twenty-three years later that Wright’s discovery was patented and sold by Bayer Pharmaceutical Company in Elberfeld, Germany. The iconic name that was given to the morphine derivative is impressive in its own way. According to one article on the subject:

“The head of Bayer’s research department reputedly coined the drug’s new name, “heroin,” based on the German heroisch, which means “heroic, strong” (from the ancient Greek word “heroes ήρως”). Bayer scientists were not the first to make heroin, but their scientists discovered ways to make it, and Bayer led the commercialization of heroin.”

Heroin was legal for a very long time. Historically, the sale of the drug began in the United States in the late 1800s, and it was not until 1930 that the drug was made illegal due to: “No therapeutic advantage over drugs already in use.” The ends no longer justified the means, and heroin was merely too addictive and too dangerous to allow to remain legal. As an interesting, final point of history, it was heroin addiction in the 1920s jazz music scene that brought public attention to this problem at that time. An alarming number of jazz musicians were known heroin addicts, including Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Art Pepper, Joe Pass and Ray Charles. The addiction of these musicians created broad, public awareness of the problem, which helped in the decision to ban the drug in 1930.

The History of Prescription Painkillers

The history of Vicodin and other pain reliever drugs goes back quite a way. As for what Vicodin is classified as, this is a drug that is based on morphine, a derivative of opium. The history of prescription painkillers follows a remarkably similar parallel to that of heroin.  Herein we can see another indicator of the real similarity of these drugs. The history of prescription pain reliever drugs panned out almost exactly in the same way that heroin did, the only difference for pill drugs is that these substances are still legal, though often frowned upon.

The first pain reliever drug dates back to 1899 with the invention of Aspirin. Again, Bayer Company of Germany was the creator here, just as they were with heroin. By 1912, the U.S. saw the addictive potential of both heroin and opium pain drugs, and so issued the Hague Opium Convention Treaty in China, which was the first ever anti-opiate legislature written by the U.S. government.

Though most don’t know of it, Prohibition had a hand to play in prescription drug abuse. During the 1920s, doctors could write prescriptions for alcohol and prescription drugs in tandem, which created the enormous surge in “legal” alcohol and pill abuse the nation had ever seen except for today’s epidemic.

Throughout the following decades, prescription opiates faired better than heroin did. For some reason, these drugs, though they chemically resembled heroin, did not receive the same scrutiny that heroin did. It was not until 1988, a half a decade after heroin had been made illegal, that the U.S. took a real stance on controlling opiate prescription drugs. It was at this point that the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was instituted, which served to better coordinate U.S. efforts to monitor and diminish prescription drug diversion.

Following the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the country experienced some, brief relief from both heroin and prescription painkillers during most of the 1990s. By the early 2000s though, while most of the nation was struggling in the grips of 9/11 and economic and political concerns, not to mention the declaration of war in the Middle East, American pharmaceutical companies used a lack of legislative control to increase production of addictive prescription drugs by over three hundred percent. This endeavor is what started the prescription drug epidemic that we have in our country today.

Moving Forward Towards a Sober Future

To better understand a situation, we must know its history. The history of Vicodin and other drugs like it show us that we have gotten entirely out of hand with prescription pain relievers, to the point where we now overmedicate with these drugs more than any other country on Earth. This fact has to change. At A Forever Recovery, our commitment is to learning as much about this problem with heroin and prescription painkillers as we can, so we can do something about it. Our help is available to all who seek it, and we are ready to help you or your loved one when you are ready. Call today for more information.

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