Editorial: Fighting heroin abuse


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The untimely death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from an apparent heroin overdose has brought a new dimension to the public discussion of drug-policy enforcement: the struggle of those addicted to heroin and other powerful opiates. In the so-called war on drugs, it’s easy to forget that real people are the users.

In the case of heroin, the appeal is as alluring as it is insidious. A 2007 survey of health professionals found, on the characteristics of physical harm and dependency, heroin ranked above all other drugs, including cocaine, barbiturates, and tobacco. Heroin is classified as a Schedule I drug: a high potential for abuse with no accepted medical use, according to the Justice Department.

What’s worse? More Americans are using the drug than ever before. From 2002 to 2012, the number of people that used heroin rose 66 percent, according to the National Survey on Drug Use. And In 2012 there were 156,000 new heroin users nationally. This rampant increase did not happen overnight.

The landscape has changed in the drug world, and the prevalence of heroin, many say, can be attributed to “heroin light”: prescription opiates such as Vicodin and OxyContin. Though these drugs are relatively safe when used as intended, it’s easy to fall into a habit of use, needing more and more doses and eventually a higher potency drug.

And that habit leads many to heroin. Cheaper and much stronger than prescription opiates, heroin fills the addiction created by these drugs and then some. The aspect most disturbing about the recent surge in use: despite decades of anti-drug policies, the damage done by these powerful opiates is more apparent than ever.

That rise in nationwide use is also apparently reflected locally. Iowa City police Sgt. Vicki Lalla and University of Iowa police Associate Director Bill Searls said their departments have seen a rise in heroin use in Johnson County.

“It’s up and down,” Searls said. “Right now, it’s up.”

Though prescription opiates may have opened the gate to heroin for many, modern medicine has also brought a promising heroin antidote: naloxone. Originally developed in the 1960s, naloxone can be used to reverse the effects of a heroin overdose, which could help to reduce the gravest side effect of the drug.

Now, law-enforcement officers have the tools to save lives that would have been cut short by heroin. In Quincy, Mass., a suburb of Boston, police have been carrying naloxone since 2010. They have administered the drug 221 times and reversed 211 overdoses.

The consistent success of naloxone makes a compelling case for police across the country to start carrying the drug. And because local officials have acknowledged that heroin use is on the upswing in Johnson County, we urge the Iowa City police and other agencies to start carrying drugs that can counteract the effects of overdoses on such opiates as heroin and many prescription painkillers.

It’s obvious that other efforts like the strict, even draconian enforcement of drug laws has not resulted in any drop off in use. Though the price of creating a supply of naloxone is significant, its proven track record in reversing heroin overdoses makes it a harm reduction policy well worth undertaking.

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