Recently, there has been a tremendous amount of media coverage attesting to a heroin “epidemic.” There is not, and never has been a heroin epidemic. The term epidemic has a specific meaning: a rapidly spreading outbreak of contagious disease, by extension- any rapid spread, growth, or development of a problem.
Heroin use can be measured in multiple ways, but perhaps the most common manner in which use of the drug is measured is by examining data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).
This annual survey is one of the standard ways of determining the extent of drug use in the U.S. The most recent data shows that 0.1% of Americans reported recent heroin use; the number was the same in 2002.
When past year heroin use was determined, 0.3% of Americans reported using the drug in 2015, similar to the number reported in 2002 (0.2%). In addition, the number of new users of the drug has remained relatively stable for more than three decades.
In 2015, this number was 135,000, whereas in 1980 it was 100,000. These data do not suggest there is a heroin epidemic.
Nonetheless, it is incumbent upon us to help keep our citizens safe. The possibility of heroin overdose and death is real. Heroin-related deaths have increased from 0.7 per 100,000 people in 2002 to 3.4 in 2014. The vast majority of these deaths involve multiple drugs, usually heroin combined with another sedative such as alcohol and/or benzodiazepines. The focus should be on warning people against combining heroin and other sedatives, rather than publicizing an epidemic that is not.
Christopher Medina- Kirchner is a recent UW-Milwaukee graduate now studying neuropsychopharmacology at Columbia University in New York City.
You may contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org
Best, Christopher Medina-Kirchner