Trends in drug use can offer a novel glimpse into larger social trends. From prohibition and its backlash in the 1920s, to the use of psychotropic drugs in 1960s counter-culture, to the flooding of crack into America’s inner-cities in the 1980s, to the world-apart Wall Street infatuation with the substance—the patterns of use and demographics of partakers seem to change with the wind.
The most recent shift: the profile of heroin users.
Not long ago, a typical heroin enthusiast was an inner-city teenaged male, with poverty, youth and the urban business combining around the drug. But in more recent years, the profile has shifted; now a first-time user is most likely to be a white 20-something of either gender, from the suburbs or a rural area. In fact, it’s estimated that in the last decade, a whopping 90% of new heroin users were white, with an average age of 23.
Why such a shift? As a recent psychiatric study points out, the surging use of prescription painkillers is the main culprit—accounting for three-fourths of new heroin users. Users initially get hooked on pills like OxyContin and Vicodin. But that’s a mighty pricey habit to keep up, so they frequently switch to opiate medication’s cheaper, more-to-the-point, easier-to-obtain cousin: heroin. The cost difference between the two for a hit can be about $70.
Drug War Fail
A final factor lies in the recent crackdown on prescription narcotic abuse, which can further push users to other, harder drugs. Pharmaceutical companies under government pressure have made their pills harder to crush, among other efforts. Oh the irony.
It’s increasingly clear that the War on Drugs hasn’t panned out too well. Misplaced criminalization, ineffective treatment methods and the ever-increasing savvy of traffickers make for a magic policy failure trifecta. And increasing rates of poverty don’t help.
But in the case of heroin, the relative wealth and strong social network of a number of the new addicts could present a somewhat easier scenario for intervention. Or we could go the tried-and-true approach of just massively incarcerating them. It doesn’t actually help anything, but it does allow politicians to seem tough on crime. And in the end, isn’t that what really matters?