SPRING HILL - A national survey released this month shows heroin use among people 12 and older has nearly doubled since 2007 amid efforts to curb abuse of prescription painkillers.
The survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows 373,000 people reported using heroin in 2007 and 669,000 reported using heroin in 2012
"Surprisingly enough, we have absolutely seen an increase in heroin," said Tammy Strickling, executive director of Suncoast Rehab. "All you ever saw was prescription pills. Now eight out of 10 of our last clients have been for heroin."
Law enforcement is currently working to address that alarming resurgence.
"I wouldn't be surprised if it's heroin or MDMA (ecstasy) that's filling the void as we're cracking down on pills," said Assistant State Attorney Chris Sprowls. "It's the cops on the street, our prescription drug monitoring program, the drug treatment course that we have ... those are things contributing to the decreased amount of prescription pill abuse."
Prescription drug shortages have proved lethal, Strickling said, and on a scale beyond heroin use.
"Street heroin addicts sometimes want detox, but don't need it, and won't die in withdrawal coming off it," she said. "But a person will die off prescription drugs if they've been taking high doses for years."
The term "Heroin" itself is a patented trademark. Synthesized from morphine in 1874 by an English chemist, it was not produced commercially until 1898, according to a University of Arizona report.
Attempts made to use heroin in place of highly-addictive morphine failed for reasons that today appear obvious, and eventually became illegal in the U.S. for its addictive properties. There have since been at least two major heroin epidemics in the U.S., the first being after World War II and the second in the late 1960s.
Both epidemics subsided due to heroin decreasing in potency and increasing in price, according to the report. However, reports indicate pure forms of heroin are becoming more widely available, and current prices are a large draw for users of prescription painkillers: it's cheaper, easier to obtain and mimics the feeling of prescription narcotics.
"That's part of what this new epidemic is going to be with prescription pills and the increase use of heroin," Strickling said. "It's like you take a step forward with the pill mills, and then take a couple steps back."
Executive Director of Novus Detox in Pasco County Kent Runyon recently spoke to a young man undergoing heroin detox at his treatment facility, who switched to the street drug after he could no longer obtain or afford pain pills.
"In his experience, there's no going back to using prescription painkillers," he said. "The high and euphoria you get from heroin, most prescription pain users won't go back."
Runyon said the patients he sees nowadays come from all across the world. One striking commonality patients have, Runyon and Strickling both said, is their middle- and upper-class backgrounds.
"I talked to a business person recently, and this individual had a medical condition resulting in being prescribed a pain killer, and his physician was unwilling to continue prescribing," he said. "At the time he didn't have many choices to get off of it, and through his trainer at his health club he was introduced to a heroin dealer, and switched."
One particular danger with heroin is its inconsistent potency, Strickling said, which varies per shipment and method of preparation: the dose a user takes one day from one batch might be a lot stronger with the next.
This can spell death for an accustomed prescription pill user who suddenly switches to heroin.
"You can take the same amount and OD and die," Strickling said. "That's also why there's increased death with heroin use, unlike an Oxycontin pill where you know what you're getting."
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, studies show treatment can cut drug abuse in half, reduce criminal activity up to 80 percent and reduce arrests up to 64 percent. Estimates show for every dollar spent on addiction treatment, there is a $4- to $7-reduction in the cost of drug-related crimes.
Strickling and Runyon both expressed a need for improved collaboration between drug treatment centers and law enforcement agencies amid the current heroin resurgence.
"Someone suffering from addiction, there's also a victim there," Strickling said. "So while you can put them in jail, it isn't going to address the problem. I'd personally like to work with law enforcement to combat the crime that results from that addiction."
To contact Suncoast Rehabilitation Center, call (800) 511-9403, or Novus Detox at (800) 505-6604.