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Stanford study: prescription opioid addicts turn to heroin

The number of heroin addicts has climbed at an alarming rate since 2008, data from a new study suggests.

Stanford University School of Medicine researchers who worked on the study say their findings represent a shift as prescription opioid addicts turn to illicit drugs because they are cheaper and more accessible.

Their report showed that while the hospital discharge rate for people hooked on prescription opioids has decreased since 2010, that for heroin overdose discharges increased annually about 30 percent.

Experts are warning that efforts need to be taken to limit the availability of heroin, as the US struggles to control the worst drug epidemic it has ever seen.

A new study from Stanford University School of Medicine has found that the number of heroin overdose hospital discharges is rising each year

For the study, researchers observed the trends among hospital inpatient and emergency room discharges from 1997 to 2014 by analyzing data from the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project.

They found that the number of admissions for prescription opioid overdoses decreased from 2010 to 2014, which speaks to national efforts to decrease the availability of opioids in the US, according to study author Dr Tina Hernandez-Boussard.

This change also came after President Obama’s National Drug Control Strategy program began.

The program emphasized severity of the opioid crisis, which at the time was just taking flight, and was followed by societal and federal initiatives that targeted the problem.


In August President Trump said the opioid crisis is now a ‘national emergency’.

About half a million Americans died of drug overdoses between 2000 to 2014, according to the CDC.

The opioid overdose death rate for people of all ages hit an all time high in 2014.

The increases in deaths related to prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin are the ‘biggest driver of the drug overdose epidemic,’ according to the CDC.

These are the center’s tips for stopping the epidemic:

  • Law enforcement agencies need to work together with public health agencies and medical examiners to improve the response to outbreaks fo illegal opioid overdoses
  • There should be an expansion of access to naloxone – a drug that reverses the symptoms caused by an opioid overdose and saves lives – for people with opioid use disorder
  • Access to substance use disorder treatments that are evidence based should be expanded 

However, while the availability of opioids during that time appeared to decrease, the number of discharges of patients who had been poisoned by heroin skyrocketed, jumping from less than five of every 100,000 people to almost 20.

And officials think they know the reason for this shift: as people who are addicted to prescription opioids run out of pills and, eventually, money, they turn to something cheaper. In this case, they are searching for heroin.

Recent research has confirmed that much of this heroin people are seeking out on the streets of American cities is laced with fentanyl, which can be 50 times stronger than heroin.

The problem is most severe in New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Cleveland, where the rate of deaths related to the synthetic opioid shot up on average 600 percent from 2014 to 2016.

Associate professor of psychiatry at Stanford Dr Anna Lembke confirmed that prescription opioid addicts frequently turn to heroin. She said: ‘My patients have told me that’s exactly what they did. Heroin was cheaper and easier to get.’

The study said: ‘Our findings for trends in heroin-related discharges are alarming for public health stakeholders.’

And the report’s authors are calling for more research to find out how, as opioid abusers turn away from prescription drugs, doctors can steer them away from illicit versions of the substances.

But the report’s silver lining is that the rate of opioid discharges went down, providing researchers hope that doctors are beginning to prescribe the highly-addictive painkillers less often.

Dr Lembke said that while she is optimistic ‘there is still a long way to go and doctors are still prescribing way too many opioids – four times as many as in the 1990s and far more than other developed countries in the world’.