Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death — from what authorities believe was a heroin overdose — has put heroin addiction back in the national spotlight.
While many Americans may be shocked by Hoffman’s use of heroin, Valencia College professor Judith Addelston says that heroin is no longer used only by hard-core junkies; today’s heroin users are often middle-class people who have become addicted to prescription drugs such as morphine, Oxycontin and Vicodin.
Heroin, she says, is a street version of those legal opioids. When people becomes addicted to oxycodone and can no longer get it — either because law enforcement authorities are cracking down or because their doctors will no longer prescribe it to them — they may turn to heroin.
“It’s the same drug,” she says. “Pills are the rich man’s version.”
Heroin today is cheaper and more easily obtained than prescription painkillers, particularly since federal and state authorities have cracked down on doctor and patient access to the painkillers. And then there’s the cost: A bag of heroin sells for about $10 in many cities, while the equivalent amount of Vicodin costs $30.
As a result, the use of heroin has exploded. In national surveys, the number of people who reported using heroin jumped from 373,000 in 2007 to 669,000 users in 2012, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
And research suggests that use of opioid painkillers such as Oxycontin opens the door to heroin abuse. Nearly half of young people who inject heroin surveyed in three recent studies reported abusing prescription opioids before starting to use heroin. Many young people also report that crushing prescription opioid pills to snort or inject the powder provided their initiation into these methods of drug administration.
Students in Addelston’s psychology class, “Drugs and Addiction,” often sign up for the course because they have a parent or sibling who is addicted to drugs or alcohol. The students often take the class, she says, to learn why a person becomes addicted and how to deal with a family member who can’t or won’t seek help.
“We often joke that, in addition to learning the material, the class turns into group therapy. The reality is: Everyone has been touched by addiction,” says Addelston, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Her advice to students? Distance yourself from the addict. “You can tell them, ‘I cannot stand by and watch you destroy yourself.’ ”
In class, students learn that addicts, whether they’re addicted to nicotine, alcohol or drugs, can be clean for years — but when they face a “trigger,” whether it’s a song that they used to listen to while getting high, or a familiar place or person, they get the urge to take the drug.
“The psychological urge is so powerful,” says Addelston. “I quit smoking over 20 years ago, but when I see someone light up, I get the urge to smoke.”
Unfortunately, says Addelston, recovery is a long, slow process — and it can be expensive. The first phase of recovery takes nine to 18months, she says, but most insurance plans pay for only 28 days of treatment.
And for many addicts, the first time in rehab won’t be their last. Research shows that the average addict goes to five treatment centers before getting clean, Addelston says.
“The disease of addiction is so horrific,” says Addelston. “It’s physical, psychological and spiritual — all three at once. Whether it’s alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs, it’s difficult to quit. It’s just as hard to quit gambling as it is to quit heroin.”