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Article Summary

Heroin Use In the United States

Despite stiff penalties on usage and possesion of heroin, including a mandatory five year sentence for possession of more than 100 grams, heroin use in the United States is becoming more prevalent. Many rehab clinics in areas like San Francisco and Baltimore have reported that heroin is the drug of choice for many of those admitted to their programs. A survey conducted in 2003 showed that 319,000 Americans reported using heroin in the year before the survey, with 119,000 having used it in preceding month. These numbers are probably an underestimate considering the fact that not every user is going to admit abusing heroin.

Heroin is a member of the highly addictive class of drugs known as opiods. Opiods are powerful pain relievers, and are often used for relief of pain due to surgery, severe injuries, and other cases in which other medications may not help. In other countries, including the United Kingdom, heroin is prescribed under its clinical name diamorphine. However, the possesion of heroin in the United States is forbidden without a DEA license.

Those who use heroin and other opiods for reasons other than pain relief do so because of the rush that they feel when it enters the brain. Other immediate effects of the drug include a slowing down respiratory function and a feeling of sleepiness.

There are several factors that have contributed to heroin's increased popularity in certain parts of the country. The availability of purer heroin--which can be inhaled-- is one factor that has attracted those who previously refused to use the drug because of a reluctance to inject it. Another factor that has led to an increase in heroin users is the fact that the drug has become cheaper, making it more easily accessed by users who are poor. The mistaken belief that smoking or inhaling heroin instead of injecting it would prevent a casual user from becoming an addict has led to an increase in the number of users in suburban areas like Denver, Colorado.

Risks of Heroin Use

Heroin is a risky drug to use for many reasons. Addiction, of course, is one of the primary risks associated with its use. Heroin use in the United States is also thought to have contributed to at least 75% of new AIDs cases. This is because needle sharing leads to risk of infection among users who are homeless or otherwise vulnerable. Other bloodborne illnesses, including hepatitis, are also prevalent among heroin users who inject the drug. Infections of the heart lining and valves are another risk of heroin use due to contaminants in the substances used to cut the drug. Also, because an user cannot be sure how pure the heroin he or she gets off the streets actually is, there is always the chance of accidental overdose.

Heroin Withdrawal

Many users are more afraid of the effects of withdrawal from heroin than they are of the risks associated with use of the drug. Symptoms of heroin withdrawal vary in severity depending on the amount of tolerance the user's body has built up and on the amount of the drug that he or she used before attempting to quit. Some report feeling heavy as well as yawning or sneezing. Others who have attempted to quit using heroin "cold turkey" (that is, without medical intervention) have experienced night sweats, insomnia, depression and involuntary spasms in their legs and arms often accompanied by cramps.

While opiate withdrawal can be painful and difficult, it is not often fatal. Detoxification programs provide a safe environment for heroin users to begin the process of learning to live without the drug, and can be the first step in treatment both for those who use medication to assist in treating the addiction and for those who employ other methods.

Types of Heroin Treatment

Methadone is a medication commonly used to treat heroin addiction. It binds to the same receptors in the brain that heroin binds to, and effectively blocks heroin's effects. An addict who uses methadone as part of his or her treatment does not have to worry about experiencing the symptoms of heroin withdrawal. However, there is a chance of becoming addicted to methadone.

Buprenorphine is another drug used to treat heroin addicts. It works in much the same way as methadone, but is less likely to lead to dependance. Many people seeking treatment for an addiction prefer this medication because it can be prescribed in a doctor's office, so they do not have to get it at a treatment facility.

Behavioral therapy alone or in conjunction with medical treatment is also very helpful for those who wish to overcome heroin addiction. Depending on the patient's needs, therapy can be done in inpatient or outpatient settings.

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