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Path of destruction

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It’s lethal, highly addictive, inexpensive and has made a comeback.

Once known for plaguing the entertainment industry, heroin fell off the radar after the 1970s. It’s not that there weren’t other drugs wreaking havoc, but at least heroin had taken on a lower profile.

But some public health professionals believe they’ve become victims of their own success. Efforts to curb heroin usage decades ago worked so well that the narcotic was largely forgotten.

This loss of institutional memory, however, is now haunting a new generation of users. Teenagers who don’t recall the horror stories of the drug’s devastating effects have walked into its trap completely blind, and they’re getting hooked throughout the country at an alarming rate.

Communities in Northern New York have not been immune from this unnerving trend. An article in Sunday’s issue of the Watertown Daily Times documented what is occurring here and how law enforcement and public health professionals are dealing with the epidemic.

One way to gauge the growing popularity of heroin usage is by its price, the article reported, and officials have found troubling evidence. The price of heroin in Jefferson County has sharply declined, meaning it has become more widely available.

The Metro-Jefferson Drug Task Force has prosecuted 42 heroin-related cases so far this year, which represents 27 percent of its caseload. There were 58 heroin-related cases prosecuted by the task force in 2012, 23 percent of its caseload. This is an increase from 11 percent of its caseload in 2008 and 12 percent in 2009.

Dr. Brian Johnson, director of addictive medicine at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, said doctors began overprescribing opioid-based medication about 20 years ago, according to the story in the Times.

Young people have been among the users, and many of them get hooked. Advances in treating sports injuries, for example, have included using opioids to control pain in athletes.

Obtaining refills requires a doctor’s authorization, and buying such drugs on the street can be expensive. So users have increasingly turned to heroin as an alternative, which has become both easier and cheaper to buy.

Another problem is the casual attitude some young people have today about experimenting with drugs, particularly at parties. Different drugs are passed around, and heroin is now on the list.

Many of the drugs they try aren’t nearly as addictive as is heroin, so they don’t know what they’re in for when they use it. Heroin also is much more potent than it was decades ago. And since it comes in different forms, many young people may not realize they’re using it until it’s too late.

People who deal heroin have been known to give away bags of the drug free to first-time users, even recommending they give some to their friends. These dealers know that once young people become hooked, they’ll come back time and again for more.

Treating heroin usage can be pricey, placing enormous financial burdens on families. This only worsens if addicts begin using again, requiring additional treatments. And the rate of recidivism among heroin users is high.

Public health professionals and law enforcement officials must work with schools and youth programs to raise awareness of the destructive effects of heroin usage. And parents as well as community leaders must realize that we’re now seeing an epidemic, and anyone is susceptible.

Lives are hanging in the balance, and ignorance will only exacerbate the problem. Know the traps that lead to heroin usage among young people and work to lead them in a safer direction.

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