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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 4/7/14

The politics of heroin: Trying to break the dangerous wild horse

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(Article changed on April 7, 2014 at 14:54)

Heroin use is epidemic, not only in America's inner cities, but also in its wealthiest suburbs. For those wanting to score a hit of horse in some dinky, two-crossroad town or remote rural area, chances of finding a backstreet or backwoods dealer are good, too. 

First controlled in the United States in 1914, heroin was allowed for medicinal reasons until 1924, when Congress made its production and sale illegal. Heroin use increased nearly 70 percent in the USA between 2002 and now. It's a cheap drug, it's rather easy to obtain and it's become more consumer friendly, since new manufacturing methods allow it to be snorted or smoked rather than injected. Drug overdoses have bumped car crashes as the leading cause of injury deaths in America.

Heroin's use in the United States nearly doubled between 2007 and 2011. Nearly a quarter of those who try heroin become hooked, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Studies also indicate crime among heroin addicts is not only prevalent, but egregious. Once hooked, addicts will resort to anything to get another fix. There are plenty of social drinkers but are there any social heroin takers? The answer to that question lies in why heroin was made an illegal substance nearly a century ago. For example, in 1924, New York City's deputy police commissioner reported 94 percent of all crimes were being committed by heroin addicts. 

The politics of heroin in America ranges from rabid condemnation -- with the results possibly leading to doubling down incarceration times to a decade for manufacturers and dealers, and even jailing those possessing only small quantities of heroin for a plurality of years; to those advocating clean needle exchanges free from policing by the authorities; to others wanting more government investment in detox and intensive, 30- to 90-day, in-patient stays for addicts. The legalization of marijuana for adult recreational use in Colorado and Washington begs the question whether "the window drug" cannabis might lead over time to legalizing harder narcotics, like heroin, in some states.

What is the true face of America now?
What is the true face of America now?
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According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA's) National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 23.5 million Americans (older than age 11) required treatment for narcotics and alcohol in 2009. Addiction to heroin and other opiates accounted for the largest percentage of drug-related admissions (20 percent). The study indicates that 60 percent of admissions were Caucasian, 21 percent were African-American, 14 percent were Hispanic or Latino, 2.3 percent were American Indian or Alaska Native, while 1 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander. (see:

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) said he has surveyed the coroners in each of Ohio's 88 counties to discover how many deaths could be linked to heroin. "We do not have all the figures in yet, but it looks like there were over 900 deaths statewide in 2013 that were heroin related. It goes up each year and in 2013, it was a pretty dramatic increase. In 2010, the number was slightly more than 300. In 2011, it went up to 427. In 2012, there were 725 deaths . . . And it shows no sign of leveling off." 

"It's a horrible epidemic," said U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan (D), who represents Ohio's 13th District, in an early April televised interview. "It's ruining families. It's ruining lives. Many citizens of Ohio are dying because of it." 

There's a common misconception that heroin is only abused by old men who are homeless junkies; or by rich, bohemian, eccentric actors and musicians. The average age of today's heroin addict is only 21; and its relatively cheap price and easy access, along with its high potency, are making it alluring to younger generations. 

A plethora of in-patient rehab facilities treat heroin addiction and on most of their websites, cautioning words are used to show breaking the cycle of addiction is stark: "If you're looking for motivation to fuel your recovery program, reading drug addiction recovery statistics may not be the best place to start. Recovering from drug addiction often involves at least one relapse, and many users will backslide multiple times. A lot of addicts will enter addiction treatment programs again and again without achieving long-term sobriety," according to (see: ). 

The politics involving heroin have created a family of monsters. In late March, Senate Bill 5 -- designed solely to fight a heroin epidemic in Kentucky - passed a committee vote 12-0, with eight members passing on the vote. The crux of this bill would lead to drug traffickers being charged with homicide in the event of an overdose death. Some who declined voting were concerned with the Constitutionality of such a daunting charge being levied upon drug traffickers while others were more concerned with needle exchanges - allowing heroin addicts to turn in used needles in exchange for brand-new hypodermics to stave off the transmission of hepatitis or HIV/AIDS.  

J. Michael Brown, Kentucky's Secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, said Kentucky's success in cracking down on prescription drug abuse has shifted users of prescription painkiller/opiates toward heroin. And Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway said The Bluegrass State has seen a 650 percent increase in heroin overdose deaths. (See:|2+Pure+Politics) )  

Less than a decade ago, mandatory minimum incarceration periods for those involved in the heroin trade in Louisiana were lessened. But a bill drafted by state Rep. Joe Lopinto (R-Metairie) created to increase minimum sentences for heroin producers, manufacturers, distributors and dispensers from five to ten years passed a House vote on April 2. And those found using the illicit drug or in possession of it will be jailed for at least two years (heroin users are not currently subjected to state minimum incarceration stays in Louisiana).  

Law enforcement and district attorneys in Louisiana testified before Pelican State lawmakers in support of these tougher sanctions. But Robert Toale of the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Judge Robert Morrison of the District Court Judges Association argued against setting such stiff penalties. Both urged lawmakers to opt for legislation measures creating more treatment options available to opiate addicts who find themselves in legal trouble due to their disease. Toale also mentioned that prison costs would escalate, according to an April 3 Times-Picayune article (see: ). 

Another stalwart piece of legislation, Louisiana House Bill 754, authorizes first responders - under contract with a physician - to give Naloxone to those suffering heroin overdoses. This prescription drug - with the brand name Narcan - reverses the effects of opiate overdoses almost immediately after it's applied. H.B. 754 was approved without objection in the House Health and Welfare Committee. Sponsored by Helena Moreno (D-New Orleans), it should soon be debated on the Louisiana House floor. 

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Samuel Vargo worked as a full-time reporter and editor for more than 20 years at a number of daily newspapers and business journals. He was also an adjunct English professor at colleges and universities in Ohio, West Virginia, Mississippi (more...)

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