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Editorial: Resurgence of deadly heroin underscores need for treatment

Apr. 28, 2013 @ 11:10 PM

The drug culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s popularized marijuana, cocaine, LSD and other street drugs.

But with the accidental overdose of rock singer Janis Joplin in 1970 and other high-profile deaths, none was considered more dangerous or addictive than heroin.

Over the next few years, the surge of heroin use began to subside. The development of methadone helped treat the addicted, and the end of the Vietnam War closed out some of the smuggling routes that had flourished since the conflict began in the mid-1960s.

As cocaine use skyrocketed, heroin moved to the background -- at least on the streets of middle America.

But today heroin is back in a big way -- this time coming primarily from Mexico and South America.

Federal drug agents report that the amount of heroin seized along the nation's southwestern borders has quadrupled since 2008. Local law enforcement also has seen increases, and the number of heroin overdoses in West Virginia was up 44 percent in 2012.

Most of us would ask the very reasonable question, "With all that is known about the dangers of heroin, why is it coming back now?"

Ironically, the resurgence of the worst of the street drugs is being blamed on legal drugs that have flowed through our drugs stores and medical clinics over the past decade.

The introduction of opiate-family pain killers such as Oxycontin in the 1990s has fueled an addiction epidemic, not just in the rough areas of big cities, but across the small towns and heartland of the country. Many abusers got started with a legal prescription for pain issues, so the problem has affected all ages and social strata.

But frankly, by the time states and the prescription drug industry began to crack down on the flow of these pain pills, it was too late. Our region and much of America had an entrenched addiction problem.

As supplies of prescription pain killers dried up or became too expensive, these users turned to the cheaper and increasingly more available alternative of heroin. Unfortunately, the heroin suppliers find their markets with frightening efficiency and often lethal consequences.

"As bad as oxycodone, heroin is worse," addiction specialist Mark Publicker told USA TODAY this week. The use of needles and the unpredictable potency of the drugs can lead to overdoses, particularly among novice users.

Hindsight certainly tells us that the introduction and management of these more powerful prescription pain killers were bungled on many levels. But if we learn anything from this cautionary tale, it is that with addiction, supply will meet demand.

Communities cannot fight today's problem without adequate treatment efforts, and we cannot afford to move too slowly on increasing those resources.

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