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Heroin Use Is on the Rise Again, Thanks to Suburban White Users

OxyContin is heroin’s new gateway drug, experts say

(Photo: Castello-Ferbos/Godong/Photononstop/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

In the 1960s and 70s, heroin swept across U.S. urban centers like a plague. At that time, most users were young, male, black and poor. Now, heroin is having a second coming. As the Economist reports, the drug's resurgence, however, is due to a new group of users: suburban middle-class whites, half of whom are women.

In 2013, there were 680,000 annual users of heroin in the U.S., the Economist reports, double the number in 2007. (In Europe, on the other hand, the number of users has dropped by a third over the past decade.) Many of those new users, experts say, find their way to heroin through prescription drugs like OxyContin and other opioid-based pain killers, all of which are highly addictive if abused. "In some states," the Economist writes, "the number of opioid prescriptions written each year now exceeds the number of people."

But over the past couple years, as laws regarding painkillers have tightened, the Economist reports, heroin production in Mexico has increased and made cheaper heroin available to U.S. users. In theory, limiting the number of painkiller perscriptions will create fewer addicts to begin with. But in the meantime, it looks like people already addicted to opioids took advantage of heroin's relative accessibility: in the same period that U.S. authorities focused on crackign down on painkiller user, heroin overdoses doubled. 

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