The latest CDC data on heroin overdoses in the U.S. paints a grim picture, as heroin-related deaths rose 23 percent in 2015. Interestingly, this increase comes as nationwide heroin usage rates are decreasing by as much as 10 percent, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Over the past decade, heroin use has doubled, while the heroin overdose death rate has grown sixfold. Given the trends in usage, why are more people dying from heroin overdoses than ever before?
There are a few trends that influence these results. For one, the U.S., state and local governments have grown stricter when it comes to the issuance of opioid painkiller prescriptions, making them increasingly harder to get and harder to maintain. This has led many users to switch to the black market and, in the absence of their opioids of choice, has led them to heroin. Additionally, the great variance in the quality and potency of street heroin – compounded by the increasing prevalence of fentanyl being compounded with heroin – has put many more users at-risk of overdose and death.
There are many points of view on how the country can positively affect these troubling statistics, and one that is increasingly part of the conversation is harm reduction. The theory holds that by making use of the drug less dangerous, the chances of long-term positive outcomes improve. The most visible form of harm reduction in recent times is the increased presence of naloxone in law enforcement and communities at large. Naloxone can reverse overdoses and allows those who witness them to take action to save the individual who overdosed. Laws to protect those who report overdoses have also come into vogue, encouraging people to report overdoses instead of leaving a person to die. More controversial forms of harm reduction, including checking services, supervised injection facilities and heroin-assisted treatment have been tried in some communities, as well, most notably Boston.
What do you think? Can harm reduction significantly decrease these overdose rates? Does it undermine the potential for traditional drug treatment to be effective?
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