America’s Heroin Epidemic: A Chronology
Between 1999 and 2011, deaths attributable to opioids quadrupled, and the trend in America’s heroin epidemic continues unabated. In Ocean County, New Jersey, there were over one hundred drug overdose deaths in 2013, nearly double the number from the previous year, the majority of which have involved heroin (more here on heroin overdose).
Although heroin addiction has been a societal problem for centuries, new factors – including a proliferation of pain medication and lawlessness in Afghanistan – have contributed to an acceleration of abuse and dependency.
Here is a brief chronology of heroin-related events:
- 1853 The invention of hypodermic needles (first used to inject morphine)
- 1874 Heroin is synthesized
- 1897 Bayer Pharmaceuticals synthesizes heroin and markets it aggressively for a variety of ailments
- Early 1900s Doctors begin to notice heavy consumption of cough medicines containing heroin
- 1914 The Harrison Narcotics Act passes, outlawing the manufacture and possession of heroin
- 1971 The Nixon Administration launches the War on Drugs
- 1990s Pain medications that contain oxycodone and hydrocodone become more common, leading to dependency outside of the traditional drug culture (by 2012, hydrocodone was the most prescribed drug in the U.S.). Users in many cases moved on to heroin because it was cheaper.
- 2002 Post-invasion Afghanistan resumes opium production, eventually producing 95% of the world’s supply.
- 2003 The National Drug Intelligence Center reports that, “Treatment data indicate that heroin is abused at high and increasing levels in the Northeast, particularly in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.”
- 2011 The Ohio Substance Abuse Monitoring Network reports an alarming increase in the amount of new teen heroin users.
- 2013 Demographic for heroin addiction shows shift. In 2000, the highest death rate from heroin overdoses was in blacks ages 45 to 64. But in 2013, whites ages 18 to 44 had the highest rate. Whites in that age group accounted for more than half of the heroin-related overdose deaths that year.
- 2014 Overdose count continues to grow. More than 8000 heroin-related deaths occurred in 2013, compared to nearly 6000 in 2012. The rates increased significantly since 2010, when deaths numbered about 3,000. Heroin-related deaths were up among both men and women, in all age groups, and in whites, blacks, and Hispanics.
- 2015 Policymakers from both ends of the political spectrum call the War on Drugs a failure and decry the mass incarceration of drug offenders. New approaches to addiction are examined, and states continue to approve medications like naloxone, buprenorphine, and methadone to treat heroin overdoses.
Because of the damage done at the individual, family and community levels, the term “America’s heroin epidemic” has become familiar among policymakers, academics and in the news. The ripple effect from user to society at large is dramatic:
- Crime and its associated costs (harm to victims, law enforcement, incarceration), Productivity losses
- Medical costs
- Addicts as vectors for HIV and Hepatitis
- The emotional costs to loved ones
These effects cumulatively impose an enormous burden on the nation. Fortunately, treatment continues to grow in effectiveness, and addicts can find recovery if they want it. The key to solving America’s heroin epidemic is making treatment available.
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