Healthy Choices

CDC: Prescription drug abusers are turning to less-expensive heroin to stave off ‘dope sickness’

Over the past three years, deaths from prescription drug abuse have far exceeded those from traffic accidents in California and several other states, making opioid dependency in particular an epidemic in the United States, according to experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Increasingly, addictions to prescription pain pills such as opioid analgesics are beginning to lead users to heroin. Heroin is nearly molecularly identical to the opioid pain killer Oxycontin, but costs just a fraction of the prescription pill, which runs about $80 per tablet on the street, officials say.

Abusers who find they can no longer afford Oxycontin to feed their addictions are turning to heroin to avoid excruciatingly painful withdrawal symptoms called “dope sickness,” authorities said.

CDC expert Christopher M. Jones said the majority of people who use both heroin and opioid analgesics report using prescription pills before then turning to heroin, making drugs like Oxycontin and Vicodin potential gateway drugs for street heroin. Typically, these are people who are frequent “nonmedical users” – and not those who rely on medications to control pain due to serious illnesses such as cancer.

The CDC has identified three fronts on which it is helping states focus in order to control the epidemic, Jones told members of the Association of Health Care Journalists in Atlanta recently.

First, find doctors who are prescribing opioids inappropriately and curb their behaviors. Second, acknowledge that a small group of providers is responsible for the majority of inappropriate prescribing. Third, identify the small percentage of high-risk patients who are engaging in abuse of the drugs, Jones said.

“We must collaborate with our partners in public safety, clinical medicine, substance abuse and community organizations to mount a coordinated response,” said Jones.