The face of heroin is changing. While it used to primarily be used by low-income, inner-city men, over the past 50 years heroin is increasingly the drug of choice among affluent, suburban whites, and is significantly more popular among women, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) shows.
The study analyzed the demographics of 9,346 opiod-dependent patients from over 150 publicly and privately funded treatment centers in 48 states. Respondents were users of all ages, and 2,797 reported heroin as their primary drug of abuse.
In addition to demographic information, the researchers asked patients about their introduction to heroin (why they chose heroin, how old they were, why they started). Their responses show a major shift in heroin use from the 1960s until now:
PROFILE OF A NEW OPIATE USER—1960s:
Gender: 82.8 percent male, 17.2 percent female
Race: 55 percent white, 45 percent non-white
Opiate of abuse: Heroin
PROFILE OF A NEW OPIATE USER—2010s:
Gender: 48 percent male, 52 percent female
Age: 22.9 years
Race: 90 percent white, 10 percent non-white
Geography: Suburban/rural (74.2 percent)
Opiate of abuse: Prescription opioid (75 percent)
However, opiate abuse is on the rise across all demographics. In 2012, about 669,000 Americans reported using heroin in the past year, compared to 404,000 ten years earlier, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Additionally, 4.2 million Americans ages 12 or older (1.6 percent of Americans) have used the drug at least once in their lives, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick declared the rise of heroin and opiate addiction a state public health emergency earlier this spring. Ohio, Vermont, and Minnesota state officials have also addressed the increase, dubbing it an “epidemic” and “public health crisis.”
In Massachusetts, 185 people died of heroin overdoses between November 2013 and February of 2014, according to Massachusetts State Police. This figure is a low-estimate as it does not account for heroin-related deaths in Boston, Springfield, or Worcester, Massachusetts’ largest cities, nor does it account for non-fatal overdoses.
Heroin is a highly addictive drug processed from morphine, according to NIHDA. An estimated 23 percent of users are dependent on the drug.