Heroin does not discriminate. Smack addicts have been historically portrayed as young men from minority communities living in the inner cities, or as impoverished white Americans from southern states.
Today, however, middle class white America faces the brunt of the current heroin epidemic. A “New York Times” article reports data that indicates that 90 percent of first-time heroin users are white and from the middle or upper class. The Center for Disease Control says that cheap, easily accessible heroin is attracting wealthy suburbanites and women.
The current rise in heroin usage can be attributed partly to the over-prescription of pills by doctors who are incentivized by pharmaceutical companies to sell medications to patients. By the time the prescription runs out, many patients have developed an addiction to the pills and try to buy them illegally on the street. It is here that patients learn that they can get a better high from heroin at a cheaper price. This epidemic has grown because of outdated stereotypes of addicts and a lack of awareness of the drug’s reach among the public.
“I think the most common misconception of drug usage is that it only happens in rural areas and that the people who do drugs were already ‘crackheads’ anyway or that they’re easy to identify. Well, that’s just not the case,” said junior Paige Cunningham, a student at Stevenson University. Cunningham lost her cousin due to a heroin overdose.
“My mom and I were sitting in Potbelly having dinner when my uncle called us and said my cousin Tricia was in a coma and it didn’t look good…” recalled Cunningham. A few hours later, Cunningham learned from her uncle that Tricia passed away.
“My family is Italian so we are all very close and tight knit,” she said. “Long before she got into drugs, Tricia was always around.” When the family found out about the young woman’s drug use, Cunningham said that they felt guilty, believing that there was something they could have done to prevent this from happening.
The use of heroin does not always happen deliberately. The abuser is often introduced to the drug by close friends or family. Cunningham explains that, in Tricia’s case, her boyfriend at the time used drugs and eventually she joined him.
The Foundation for a Drug-Free World claims that “even a single dose of heroin can start a person on the road to addiction.” That same source notes that since heroin is available in many forms that are easier to consume and more affordable, heroin today tempts an ever-widening population.
The drug epidemic in America has been around for decades, with the government pouring billions of dollars into its ‘war on drugs,’ but most Americans are ignorant of the true extent of the issue. According to an article in Reuters, the United Nation’s World Drug Report in 2016 noted that the number of heroin users in the United States topped 1 million in 2014 – almost three times the number in 2003.
Since 2000, heroin-related deaths have also increased five-fold. Between 1995 and 2002, the number of teenagers in America, aged 12 to 17, who used heroin at some point in their lives increased by 300 percent, according to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World.
SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS
“I think this experience, hearing testimonials from actual users, has opened my eyes more to the problem. I think there need to be better programs in place so that the ‘solution’ isn’t to decriminalize heroin. That would be absurd in my opinion,” Cunningham said.
The problem is far-reaching, and Cunningham admits she has seen only the tip of the iceberg from watching educational videos in classes and hearing stories from her brother who is an EMT.
“I think the best response to the issue is people need to start thinking outside of the box for solutions. But not just within the government, within your own community or even home.”
Cunningham explained what helped her family to get through this hard time: “My family has never really confronted the issue; we just try to remember Tricia the way she was before things got bad. We all carry a little piece of her with us every day that reminds us that she’s still here with us.” Remembering Tricia is the most important thing for Cunningham and her family.
Cunningham offered advice: “Look for the signs. I know a lot more about the characteristics of people who use drugs now. Do what you can to help others; let them know that you’re there and that you care about them. For addicts, know that the people who care about you need you more than you need this drug.”