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Prescription Pain Medication: a Gateway to Heroin


St. Joseph Institute sign
Credit Kelly Tunney

Twenty-seven year old Emily first experimented with drugs at a party when she was nineteen.  Soon, heroin became her drug of choice. At the peak of her addiction, she was using daily--multiple times a day.  

It took a long time before anyone noticed.  Emily was a 4.0 student and, she says, a "great liar."  

"I was the last person anyone would ever believe to be a heroin addict," says Emily.

Even though Emily began taking drugs socially, she says from her experience in rehab and recovery meetings, that's not the typical way people become addicted to heroin--it often starts from pain management.

"People have a bad back." She says, "And they get hooked on the painkillers and progress to heroin because it's the least expensive."

Emily says while she was using, she could get a bag of heroin for around $20, whereas a pill would go for $60 a pop.

Michael Campbell is President and Director of Educational Programs of St. Joseph Institute for Addiction, the rehab center Emily eventually entered.  He says the story is almost always the same--people get addicted to prescription pills--like Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet--and move to heroin when they can no longer afford their medications.

He says heroin addiction doesn't discriminate.

"We've treated the university student, the young worker beginning their career, the housewife, the teacher, the doctor, the lawyer," says Campbell. "Many of whom you wouldn't think are candidates for heroin addiction." 

Campbell says heroin and its use are rising dramatically.  The most recent statistic from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says the number of users almost doubled from 2007 – 2012.

He says the rise of heroin is directly tied to the influx of prescription medication with opiates in them. The change started in the mid-90s, when the American Medical Association began to tell doctors they need to treat pain if a patient declares it. And now pain management—or even the goal of no pain—is the standard protocol.

And the thing is—opiates are highly addictive.  So even taking prescription medication properly can become a problem.  Campbell says he’s heard no one can take an opiate for 12 weeks and not get addicted to it.  And the body builds a tolerance.

"You used to take 1 pill every 4 hours. Now you need, 2, now you need 4. Now you need 6.  The levels go up and up and up," says Campbell.

Emily, who has been clean for three years, doesn’t mess around with prescription pain medication.  Since leaving St. Joseph, she’s torn her ACL and gotten her tonsils out.  She didn’t take any prescription painkillers in either of those cases because she didn’t want to jeopardize her recovery. 

When she got her wisdom teeth out a year and a half ago, she decided to take her prescribed pills, but with extreme caution.  She had her parents hold on to the pills and only took the medication in front of her mom.  But after just three days of taking the painkillers as directed, she flushed the rest down the toilet.

She says even just three days brought her back to how she felt as an addict.  And it wasn't worth it.

She says, "My recovery is number one for me.  The pain is temporary, but the growth is permanent."

Emily was just accepted to a graduate program in community counseling.  She hopes to use her experience to help others who are struggling with addiction.

Additional information:

For more information about St. Joseph Institute for Addiction, visit their website here.

Kate Lao Shaffner was the Keystone Crossroads Reporter for WPSU-FM from 2014-2015. She reports on infrastructure, economic, legal, and financial issues in Pennsylvania with reporters from WHYY (Philadelphia), WITF (Harrisburg), and WESA (Pittsburgh).
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