Painkiller Addiction Made the Heroin Epidemic—Our Mistake with Pharmaceutical Drugs

Painkiller and heroin

We made a mistake with pharmaceutical drugs, and the sooner we can recognize that the sooner we can begin really fixing the problem. The mistake was that we accepted prescription drugs as a “legitimate solution” for physiological difficulties, physical pain, and mental duress.

Now, though the United States only comprises about five percent of the Earth’s population, the U.S. consumes more than seventy-five percent of the world’s supply of pharmaceutical drugs, every year. It is safe to say that the United States is an overmedicated nation.

Our Reliance on Prescription Opioids Brought On the Heroin Epidemic

Heroin is not a new drug. The U.S. has battled heroin addiction for over a century. There was once a time when heroin was legal in the United States. We are no stranger to this opiate.

However, towards the end of the 1990s and after massive levels of effort and hard work, the DEA and other organizations had made heroin all but a thing of the past across the vast majority of the U.S. By the mid-2000s however, heroin started to make a comeback, and this time it was unstoppable.

According to research published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, three-quarters of Americans who abuse heroin today initially started with prescription opioid pain relievers. As preposterous as that sounds, it is the truth. Prescription drugs, the drugs that are supposed to help us and make our lives easier, actually fueled the greatest heroin epidemic that this nation has ever seen.

Heroin Abuse Now a Micro-Epidemic Amongst American Youth

According to Joseph Palamar, Professor of Population Health at New York University:

“The more times a teen uses non-prescribed painkiller pills, the greater the risk he or she is at for becoming dependent on the drug. People who become dependent on painkiller pills often wind up resorting to heroin use because it's cheaper and more available than these pills.”
Upset little girl

Professor Palamar was speaking in regards to teens, a new demographic that has been exposed to heroin in the last six years. Prior to 2012, teens were almost never the ones to abuse heroin as they still perceived great risk in the drug.

However, teens are now getting hooked on prescription opiate drugs, drugs that they do not see much risk in. Once hooked, they often resort to heroin when they run out of pills or can no longer afford or find them. Most of the teen drug overdose deaths in the last six years have involved heroin, especially in the Midwest.

According to the New York University’s research, more than twelve percent of high school seniors report having used a narcotic painkiller such as OxyContin, Percocet, Hydromorphone, Vicodin, Dilaudid, or Opana. More than one percent now report having used heroin. As the percentile of teens who abuse prescription drugs increases so does the percentile that abuses heroin increase in tandem.

Heroin is “back in vogue” amongst young people, only this time it is not mid-twenties and early thirties adults that are at risk like it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, it is teens who are at the greatest risk, individuals who are barely more than children.

In addressing this problem, we have to focus on reducing prescription drug abuse. We do need to educate teens about the risks that are prevalent with prescription drug use and heroin abuse. But at the same time, we need to reduce our reliance on addictive pharmaceutical drugs as it was that reliance on pills that began this new heroin epidemic in the first place.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.