Is Everyone Addicted to Heroin?

It's amazing that America gets anything done with so many of us supposedly addicted to junk.

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It's amazing that America gets anything done with so many of us supposedly addicted to heroin. If you've read some major newspapers recently, you'd get the impression that our nation has an addiction problem. Just a few weeks after The New York Times and ABC News both wrote about the spread of the opiate in New England and the suburbs, The Wall Street Journal has proclaimed that heroin is making a "comeback." It feels kind of mainstream: Cory Monteith died from a heroin overdose making him the "new face of the next generation of users," according to ABC. The stuff's all over Instagram and it's easy enough to buy over the Internet. But, a closer look at the stats suggest that while the percent increase in usage suggests that "heroin use is soaring," as the Journal argues, it's hardly approaching epidemic proportions. In fact, a minuscule fraction of Americans have ever tried it.

Here are the actual pieces of data from those three recent stories:

  • Heroin killed 21 people in Maine last year. (Times)
  • New Hampshire recorded 40 deaths from heroin overdoses last year. (Times)
  • In Vermont, the Health Department reported that 914 people were treated for heroin abuse last year. (Times)
  • Bergen County reported 28 overdoses last year, up from previous years. (ABC)
  • The Kittitas County Alcohol Drug Dependency Service evaluated 27 heroin users in the fiscal year that ended June 30, compared with three in 2008. (WSJ)
  • In 2011, 620,000 people said they had tried heroin. (WSJ)
  • In 2010, there were 3,094 heroin-related overdoses. (WSJ)
  • 28 of Kentucky's 120 counties logged their first heroin arrests since the state started tracking such data in 2008.* (WSJ)

Those numbers show an increase in usage at what seems like a staggering rate, but the totals are all still very, very tiny. Maine has the highest treatment admission rate for heroin, according to a 2011 study, and still only 21 people in a state of 1.3 million people died. The 620,000 people who said they have ever tried heroin, as of two years ago, make up around two-tenths of a percent of the entire population. As of 2011, heroin came dead last in the drug of choice for America's illicit drug users, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse:

These news articles suggest that this so-called ride "has been driven largely by a law-enforcement crackdown on illicit use of prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and drug-company reformulations that make the pills harder to crush and snort," writes WSJ. Back in 2010, the FDA put out a new, gummier OxyContin, making it a less desirable recreational choice, which supposedly created our current drug problem.

Though, it's unclear if there has been a decline in prescription drug abuse and addiction. The Center for Disease Control's most recent report on the issue only has numbers as recent as 2010 — the same year that this new, addict proof OxyContin came out. But, back then it found: "2 million people reported using prescription painkillers nonmedically for the first time within the last year—nearly 5,500 a day." As recent as 2012, news outlets were writing alarming stories about the rise of prescription pain killer addiction. However, those, too, were met with skepticism.

So given the actual statistics, here's the truth about heroin use in America:

  • Yes, use is on the rise
  • Not nearly enough people do it to justify headlines like "Heroin Makes a Comeback."

*This post originally stated Washington had 120 counties. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.