The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has focused attention on rising heroin use among people who previously had been taking prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.
Figures compiled by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show that the number of previous-month heroin users nationwide doubled from 166,000 in 2002 to 335,000 in 2012. The U.S. population increased 9 percent during that period.
In Oklahoma, some state officials are expressing concern that prescription painkillers have become “gateway” drugs leading to heroin use. Oklahoma has one of the highest prescription painkiller abuse rates in the nation.
So far, the trend has not shown up in state statistics. The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services told Oklahoma Watch they have not yet detected an appreciable rise in heroin overdoses or abuse.
But state officials concede that efforts to crack down on prescription drug diversion appear to have caused the street price of OxyContin and other popular prescription painkillers to rise, while increased supplies of bootleg heroin have caused its cost to decline.
One Oklahoma City physician who specializes in drug dependency, Hal Vorse, said the street price of heroin is now only about a third of the cost of an equivalent dose of OxyContin. He said heroin users now constitute a bigger share of his patient population.
Some state officials are taking notice.
“The attention to an inadvertent increase in heroin use is critical to ensure we are getting treatment for addicts rather than simply shutting off one source of drugs, only to have them substitute another,” Oklahoma Health Commissioner Terry Cline said in a text message.
“We must have a comprehensive approach to tackling this huge challenge in our state,” Cline said.
Warren Vieth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org