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Heroin is evil, and its users deserve compassion, not ridicule or punishment. It’s best not to get hooked on any hard drug, especially if you’re repeatedly told that it’s dangerous and it will kill you, if not make your life hell.
However, not everyone is properly informed about heroin and other dangerous opiates. As we’ll learn, some are led to a heroin addiction after getting hooked on opiates prescribed by a doctor and having nowhere to turn when their prescription runs out.
Whether it’s the rebellious youth or the “ordinary” members of society who discover the drug through dependence on prescription opiates, heroin addiction is affecting an alarming number of people in the U.S. and Canada.
But why? What makes this illicit substance so valuable to people of all ages, races and social classes?
Heroin’s initial euphoric effect and the withdrawal symptoms that occur a few hours after use combine to form a habit that, for many, quickly escalates into an addiction.
Healthy Canadians reports that heroin is a depressant drug that slows down the activity of the nervous system (1). It’s usually a fine, white, bitter-tasting powder when pure, but it’s often mixed with sugar, starch and other substances that resemble it (1).
Some users combine it with alcohol or other depressants, which is dangerous and puts them at an increased risk for overdose (1).
Once ingested, the drug almost immediately produces a “pleasurable feeling” that can last anywhere from 45 seconds to a few minutes (1). This is followed by a period of tranquility that can last up to an hour (1).
The effects last about 3 to 5 hours overall, and regular users tend to ingest it every 6 to 12 hours to avoid withdrawal symptoms (1).
American Heroin Use up 145% Due Partially to Prescription Opiates
Citing the U.N. World Drug Report, Reuben Brody at Inside Hook reports that heroin use is up 145% in the United States since 2007 (2). That’s over 100% in less than ten years. 80% of addicts start with prescribed drugs such as OxyContin, which is the pharmaceutical cousin of heroin (2).
OxyContin’s effects dissipate after about 3 hours, which puts the user in pain again (2). The withdrawal suffered from OxyContin is stronger than heroin (2).
Since prescribed OxyContin treatments eventually end, the patient is left addicted with no access to the opiate (2). As a result, many are quickly exposed to the local street heroin that’s cheaper than black market prescription meds and comes with a more tolerable withdrawal (2).
Canada’s New Rules
While the United States continues its fruitless drug war in the face of alarmingly high addiction rates, Canada has chosen a new strategy: legalizing heroin for medical purposes.
With the new law, the Canadian government is choosing to treat heroin addiction as a major public health threat rather than completely criminalizing or legalizing it (3).
Many think legalization is the best way to combat the threat, and they see the new law as more of a foundation for what’s to come than a perfect solution.
Alice Salles at Anti-Media reports that like Americans, opiate use has increased significantly among the Canadian populace (3).
It’s become so bad that over a four-month period earlier this year, 256 Canadians died of a fentanyl overdose (3). If you don’t know, fentanyl is the substance tied to “bad batches” of heroin also responsible for widespread American deaths (3).
Since Canadian officials are seeing the trend in both countries as an increasing threat, new proposals were launched by Health Canada in May to let doctors prescribe heroin to addicts who don’t respond to methadone or similar treatments (3). The law was enacted September 8th (3).
The standard Canadian drug laws remain in place for most heroin users, as the only changes made were to the health code (3).
Under the new rules, doctors can only prescribe heroin to users determined to have a serious addiction (3). Prescription can only happen under a “special access” program in cases where standard treatment has been inefficient, and nothing significant changes for users not considered serious addicts (3).
According to ABC News, candidates for the Canadian pilot program must be considered longtime addicts who’ve tried “at least twice” to stop using (3).
Those who are accepted can go to a clinic between two to three times a day, where they’re provided the drugs and a syringe (3). They’re monitored by on-site medical staff, and the staff can intervene in the event they show signs of overdose (3).
It’s a great start, but it alone won’t achieve what’s needed to combat this epidemic.
New Rules Intended to Treat and Prevent Addiction
Daniel Raymond, policy director for Harm Reduction New York, says the new rules should be seen as an extension of existing rehab programs that take medical approaches rather than anything resembling legalization (3).
Whereas medicinal cannabis is legal in many parts of the world due to its effectiveness in treating various conditions, heroin’s legalization in Canada is intended to prevent abuse, overdose and addiction.
Legalization Would Ensure Quality, Decrease Addiction Rates
Citing Chris Calton, author of How Legal, Branded Heroin Would Make Drugs Safer, Alice writes that the legalization of heroin would free the drug market and drive up producer accountability for the quality of their product (3).
Consumers would demand more choices as they become aware of deficiencies or differences between products (3), leading producers to compete to have the best product by safety and quality standards.
Calton argues that name brands are instrumental to the production of high quality products and the accountability for such quality (or lack thereof) (3).
Black Market Suppliers Can’t Supply a Safe Product
Quality is more assured in name-brand products than bargain brands, and in the case of illicit substances, the violence and risk of arrest that pervade the black market – which is created by the laws surrounding these drugs – makes it too costly and risky for suppliers to provide a safe or high quality product (3).
In a free market not plagued with violence or the threat of arrest, consumers are given wider access to knowledge about the product (3). One of the only exceptions to this rule is when large companies use deceptive labeling and other tactics to avoid accountability for things that don’t belong in their products (3).
Consumers are better informed when a market is free; this would be the case with heroin and other illicit drugs (3).
The ability to “establish brand consistency” is suppressed when a product is made illegal and put into the hands of smugglers too busy dodging the law to create or advertise a high quality product (3).
Calton explains that a producer in an illicit market has to try to survive in the trade long enough to establish a reputation, find a good means to advertise an illegal product, and make sure the product isn’t tainted by distributors (3) – all while trying to avoid being tied to any of it.
This is basically impossible and leads producers to cut corners at the expense of users (3).
Should Drugs Be Legalized?
So what do you think? Do you think heroin and other opiates should be legalized, their usage monitored by doctors, and producers held accountable for quality? Though people are understandably divided on the issue, some suggest total legalization as a solution to addiction and the harm caused by the failed drug war.
If we could regulate these drugs and ensure they’re not mixed or tainted with other substances, perhaps addiction rates would fall and we’d finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. Or perhaps, as legalization opponents fear, the change would create too lax of an atmosphere around drug use and make young people think it’s okay.
I don’t believe this for two reasons:
- Legalization would bring a flood of information about the harms of heroin use and addiction, leading to an educated youth less likely to try a substance they’re aware is harmful.
- Drug use has already been normalized through legal alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and sugar (among other legal substances). Furthermore, the current laws create confusion around which drugs are okay or beneficial and which are harmful.
The second point will require clarity.
Drug Laws Benefit Pharmaceutical Companies
The current drug laws may seem at first glance to successfully draw the line between safe and harmful substances. For example: caffeine is legal but heroin is not.
However, an educated, discerning look at these laws makes it clear that they’re not based on the safety of the drugs, but rather, how the laws benefit pharmaceutical companies and the private prison industry.
For example: caffeine is legal but cannabis is not. Certain opiates are legal for medicinal use but kratom is not. Cannabis has never been responsible for a single death, but drugs that do kill people are perfectly legal.
Alcohol and tobacco are good examples, but even caffeine, a drug I enjoy, has killed people.
Heroin Use Facts
Now, we’ll check out some facts about heroin use and addiction to determine if a change in the drug laws could bring down skyrocketing addiction rates and save lives.
Feel free to skip ahead if you’d rather not learn the unsettling facts surrounding heroin addiction. It’s perfectly understandable not to want to fill your head with these depressing facts.
For those who stick around, however, becoming aware of these things can help us approach the issue with more compassion for addicts caught in a downward spiral of euphoria followed by misery.
According to Healthy Canadians, the negative short term effects of heroin use on the mind include dizziness and confusion (1). The physical effects include drowsiness; constricted pupils; nausea and vomiting; an itching or burning sensation in the skin; headaches; and slowed breathing (1).
We’ll learn more about the long term effects a little later.
The risk of overdose is high; one of the reasons for this is that users are rarely aware of the actual strength of the drug (1).
Heroin takes effect quickly, and a person who takes too much could immediately lose consciousness (1). Symptoms of an overdose include clammy or bluish skin; slowed breathing; vomiting; loss of consciousness; and suppression of breathing in large enough quantities to be fatal (1).
Overdose is more likely if the drug is taken with other depressants such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, methanol or other kinds of opioids (1).
Long Term Negative Effects of Use
The long term negative effects of heroin use are worse than the short term. The negative effects on the mind include learning or memory problems; difficulty controlling impulsive behavior; apathy or a lack of emotion; depression; and unstable moods (1).
The physical effects, some of which come from using unclean needles or syringes, can include infectious diseases like HIV or hepatitis B or C; blood poisoning; skin sores; an infection in the lining of the heart; insomnia; constipation; collapsed veins; liver and kidney disease; and the obvious, addiction.
Addiction & Withdrawal Symptoms
The symptoms of addiction and withdrawal should be enough to convince anyone considering trying the drug to let go of the thought while they still can.
Healthy Canadians reports that addiction can develop “within weeks of regular use” (1). The need for the drug quickly takes over the user’s life (1), driving them to desperately pursue a fix that does less and less for them every time.
The severity of the withdrawal symptoms depends on the amount and frequency of use; the length of time they’ve been a regular user; their health; and the conditions under which their withdrawal happens (1), among other factors.
Symptoms can begin 8 to 12 hours after their last dose and may reach a peak between 24 to 48 hours after (1). The symptoms “subside substantially” after 5 days to a week (1).
In addition to intense cravings, users in withdrawal may experience the following symptoms:
- Abdominal cramping
- Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
- A racing heartbeat
- Involuntary muscle spasms
- Anxiety, restlessness and depression
- Sweating, along with cold flashes and goosebumps (1)
Fortunately, withdrawal is rarely fatal for adults (1).
The Existing Laws Do No Good
In an age where the existing drug laws are coming into question and the world is considering moving in a new direction, it’s important to be aware of the harms these laws have caused. We should celebrate measures like those taken by the Canadian government, but we shouldn’t rest on our laurels because there’s more to be done.
We need to change the way we see drugs. Specifically, we need to change our perspective on which drugs are and aren’t harmful.
This can set us on a genuine path to preventing addiction and treating those afflicted, and no matter how much we disagree about drugs, we can all agree that something needs to change. Except maybe those who profit from the existing laws at the expense of a deeply wounded society.
(1) “Heroin”, HealthyCanadians.gc.ga, n.d. – http://healthycanadians.gc.ca/healthy-living-vie-saine/substance-abuse-toxicomanie/controlled-drugs-substances-controlees/heroin-heroine-eng.php
(2) Reuben Brody, “Canada Is Now Allowing Doctors to Prescribe Heroin”, Inside Hook, September 19, 2016 – http://www.insidehook.com/nation/canada-docs-prescribe-heroin-decriminalization
(3) Alice Salles, “Canada Just Legalized Heroin for Medical Use to Combat Overdose Epidemic”, Anti Media, September 16, 2016 – http://theantimedia.org/canada-legalized-heroin-medical-use/
By Wes Annac, Culture of Awareness & Openhearted Rebel, September 28, 2016 – http://wp.me/p1Fiwj-h0m