Heroin use in Utah is climbing, particularly among addicts switching to the illicit drug from less available, more expensive prescription opiates such as OxyContin. Since 2003, Utah has ranked among other states with the highest rates of nonmedical use of prescription painkillers. According to state officials, heroin is a cheap and readily available alternative.
With the rapid increase in usage comes an increase in heroin deaths, the tragic end result of overdose. Making matters worse, heroin, which is already a highly addictive drug, when purchased on the streets, can be extremely pure or laced with other powerful drugs. With these drugs not regulated, using street heroin is a Russian roulette dance with death.
In both heroin usage and deaths, Utah mirrors a national trend. Nationally, in 2007, there were an estimated 373,000 heroin users. By 2012, the number was 669,000, with the greatest increases among those ages 18 to 25. First-time users nearly doubled in the period, from 90,000 to 156,000. Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder called the 45 percent increase in heroin overdose deaths between 2006 and 2010 an “urgent and growing public health crisis.”
Utah’s Heroin Problem
Heroin use, as tracked by treatment admission figures from the Utah Department of Human Services, indicate the drug is now seven times more prevalent than it was in 1993. That year, heroin was responsible for 346 treatment admissions, or nearly 2 percent of all drug admissions. In 2013, heroin accounted for 2,606 admissions for treatment, about 15 percent of all admissions. The numbers are likely higher, as these figures only take into account admissions paid for with public funds. They do not count those who paid for drug rehab through private insurance.
In 2012, heroin deaths hit a 12-year high with 104 deaths from heroin overdose reported. This marked an increase from an average of 78 deaths the previous 11 years. According to an Associated Press report in the Herald Extra, state figures show that in 95 percent of those Utah deaths, heroin was combined with some other illegal or prescription drug, cocaine being the most common. Most of those deaths occurred in the urban core of the state, in the Salt Lake City area, and four of five victims were men.
What’s Being Done to Treat Utah’s Substance Abuse Problem
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert took action to attempt to stop the runaway heroin problem in the state by approving two recent laws. The first measure grants immunity from drug use or possession charges for anyone reporting a drug overdose by calling 911. Currently, more than 12 states have similar laws.
The second measure, often referred to as a “Good Samaritan” law, protects people from liability when they act in good faith and give naloxone, an FDA-approved antidote, to a person who is overdosing from heroin or another opiate.