Heroin is one of the most addictive, illegal, and deadly drugs in the world, and sadly, it has brought its terror to our little Northeast Kingdom for some time now. From taking the lives of our community members to tearing apart families, we are not immune to all the tragedy that heroin brings with it. According to the Vermont Department of Health website, the last few years has Vermont boasting some of its lowest numbers in years when it came to prescription drug use and deaths, and while that number was shrinking, heroin deaths have spiked. The Northeast Kingdom is not immune to the increased use and deadly outcomes of heroin.
The more we hear about heroin, you may be wondering what it actually is. Well, if you’ve ever seen a poppy, it’s a small red flower that you may remember from The Wizard of Oz, or as a fake flower Veteran’s hand out; this is the flower that heroin is derived from. Although poppies are well known for their seeds often used in baking, it also can make another substance known as heroin, which is an opiate drug. Heroin can be sold in different forms for use. Pure heroin is a white powder, where typically the heroin that is sold is a white to brownish colored powder that has been mixed with other powders such as sugar, starch, powdered milk, and sometimes quinine. “Black tar heroin” looks much like stick tar or can resemble a hard rock of coal. “Hollywood heroin,” which has been making headlines in our community, is a different concoction. Hollywood heroin is laced with a synthetic opiate called fentanyl. Fentanyl works very quickly at shutting down a person’s breathing, quickly relaxing the nervous system, and shutting down the respiratory system that slows down the pulse as well. When it comes to heroin, laced or not, there is no quality control, and all heroin can be deadly.
You may also wonder how people are using heroin and what it does to the body. Heroin isn’t always injected, but that is a very common use. People can also snort heroin and smoke it. Some people will also mix heroin with cocaine and addicts might also misuse other drugs and or alcohol while using heroin. First and foremost, heroin damages the brain. A 2007 study noted that brain disintegration becomes apparent very soon after the onset of chronic heroin abuse.” Brain damage is also a typical result of non-fatal overdoses. Heroin use can deteriorate the brain causing weakness, spastic attacks and permanent hand tremors. Heroin also injures many organs, specifically the kidneys, and can even lead to kidney failure. Heroin can slow down the action of the muscles in the intestines and cause a whole list of problems from constipation to extreme damage that can only be fixed by surgery. Heroin usage may even cause a rupture in the intestines. Heroin can also become more lethal as it has the ability to spread deadly diseases in the body. These are just a few of the effects of heroin.
Why are people turning towards heroin and why can’t they just quit? If we knew the exact answer it would be so much easier to care for those addicted and to prevent the use of heroin. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people who take heroin feel no pain or discomfort at all. In fact, their brain tells them they are having a pleasurable experience and they feel great pleasure while on the drug. Imagine your brain is telling you that you are experiencing extreme gratification, and to come off that high you can feel very ill physically and emotionally. People detoxing from heroin will often comment that they would rather die than feel as bad as they do coming down, hence the easier and more pleasurable choice to keep using.
Addiction is not a choice; it is a disease of the brain. In Latin, the word addiction means “enslaved by” or “bound to.” Only those who have struggled with addiction and trying to overcome it can attest to the imprisonment their addictive substance has over them. An addict’s brain no longer works the way it used to, and it can’t “just go back to the way things used to be.” Addicts do not want to be addicted. If they could tell their brains to stop they would. It takes a long road of treatment for the physical, mental and emotional bonds with their addiction to come under control. An addict doesn’t just become a “non-addict” overnight; most addicts would tell you, even in recovery, they aren’t fully recovered. It is a continued struggle and fight to stay away from the substances that their brain continues to tell them they need. Addiction isn’t just about drugs and alcohol, many people can become addicted to other stimuli like gambling, shopping, sex and other triggers.
Heroin is no longer a drug that is “off-limits,” and in 2017 a local panel of community members shared that they never thought they would use heroin. Unfortunately, heroin has been readily available and affordable in our community. Some locals are sharing that one “hit” of heroin costs about $10.00. With its extremely addictive nature, one “hit” can be all it takes for someone to be hooked. Heroin isn’t something that is used in dark alleys as you might see on TV. People are using everywhere and any time, from weekend warriors who use only on weekends, to those using before they head to work in the morning. We have people who appear to be highly functional in our community who are addicted to heroin.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse shares that among people aged 12 or older in 2020, an estimated 691,000 people had a heroin use disorder in the past 12 months. We can only guess what that might look like after furloughs, shutdowns and other covid stressors. Public health officials have called the current opioid epidemic the worst drug crisis in American history, killing more than 13,160 people in 2020. Sadly, for Vermont, we are leading in the US with adding to these stats. Heroin is in our community; heroin is stealing the lives of the people we love.
Heroin isn’t a “them” problem, it is a “we” problem. If you know someone struggling, reach out, offer your support. If the person is willing to listen, you might recommend all the new opportunities for care that Covid has brought, like virtual telehealth options for therapies. We are very fortunate to have organizations in our community that care – Journey to Recovery, Savida, Northeast Kingdom Human Services and North Country Hospital, just to name a few. We must work together on this problem; we have no choice. Heroin is a killer amongst us.
Director of The Wellness Center