A new study published by The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) compares heroin users today to the heroin users of the 1960’s by comparing the data surrounding those who sought treatment for the substance. The researchers related age, gender, race, location, and usage trends to determine a sizable shift between the generations.
Fifty years ago, the average age of a heroin user was 16.5 years old, while in 2010, the average age is 22.9 years old. By 2010, heroin users were almost evenly split between men and women, but back then, 83% of those seeking treatment for heroin use were men.
The study shows that, in the 1960’s, just over 40% of treatment seekers were white. In 2010, the number of white users jumped to 90%. Researchers also found that heroin use has become much more popular in suburban areas among affluent, middle class groups.
One major difference noted in the study compared the users’ stages of opioid use. “In the past, heroin was a drug that introduced people to narcotics,” said lead researcher Theodore J. Cicero, PhD, of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “But what we’re seeing now is that most people using heroin begin with prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin, Percocet, or Vicodin, and only switch to heroin when their prescription drug habits get too expensive.”
After OxyContin was reformulated in 2010 to make it more difficult to crush or dissolve, users became more likely to switch to heroin, according to Cicero. These abuse-deterrent features weren’t considered successful in hindering drug use in general because people simply migrated to heroin – a trend policymakers did not anticipate.
It has been evident for sometime that the face of the average heroin user is changing. Although heroin has commonly been associated with the Jazz Age of the 1950’s or with the Vietnam War or junkies on the street in the 1990’s, today the face of heroin is whiter, older, and more suburban than ever.