Monday, February 29, 2016

Heroin is in Your Community - You Just Don't Know It

The local NBC affiliate here in the Atlanta area, 11-Alive, has just produced an in-depth story about heroin use and overdose deaths.  It's an outstanding series of videos and if you don't have much time on your hands, at least spend 7 minutes watching the first one in the series (after which you'll probably end up watching all of them).  Those of us that follow this public health crisis closely are no longer surprised by these stories, but to have such solid reporting that is so focused on my own community offered me an opportunity to talk about this with others for whom the story might be relatively new.  

Here's what surprises people:

First, this problem is concentrated in the wealthy suburbs of our major cities, not poorer areas with which drugs and related crimes have historically been linked.  The local reporters here in Atlanta discovered a triangle that connects Marietta to the west, Alpharetta to the north, and Johns Creek to the east.  Inside this triangle, you'll find some of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the state (and among the wealthiest ZIP codes in the country, for that matter).  And these reporters also found a heroin overdose death rate inside of this triangle that has skyrocketed nearly 4,000% just since 2010.  

Second, and correlated with the first point, people so closely (and incorrectly) link drugs and crime and poverty that they are completely missing the fact that heroin dealers are making home deliveries all over the north metro Atlanta suburbs.  This is how simple it is now: you text your dealer, you leave $20 under the door mat, the dealer takes the $20 and leaves the heroin.  Done.  No shady street corners, no dark alleys, no dangerous meet ups, no abandoned houses.  It's as easy as ordering a pizza.

Third, it's about as cheap as ordering a pizza, too.  That $20 isn't a made up number - that's what it costs to get secure a supply of heroin that will keep you high for up to several days.  

Fourth, this problem usually doesn't start with other illicit drugs or alcohol (though it certainly can). Heroin addiction most often begins with prescription painkillers.  And while much of the painkiller abuse in high schools is non-prescribed, recreational use, there is a substantial portion of teenage heroin addicts that started out with a legitimate prescription for opioids from a well-intentioned doctor.  Parents I've spoken to routinely miss this critical link.  Otherwise upstanding kids can get addicted to opioids (particularly after a wisdom teeth extraction or a sports injury - see this Sports Illustrated article for a more in-depth view of opioid use among high school athletes).  And when they get hooked and can no longer access painkillers (when doctors cease prescribing them and/or they can't find or afford non-prescribed pills), they're turning to heroin.  

I don't often tell people they're wrong - it's impolite and usually counterproductive.  But... if you don't think this is happening in your community, you're wrong.  If you don't think this is going on in your kid's high school, you're wrong.  If you don't think this could potentially impact you and your family directly, you're wrong.  

Strong reasons ought to make for strong actions.  Tell your friends, share the link above with your neighbors, make sure teachers and counselors and pastors are aware.  Above all else, be vigilant.  

On Twitter @PRIUM1

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