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King County Data Shows Heroin Deaths Among Young Adults On The Rise

Heroin-related deaths used to be associated with users in their 30s on up through middle age. But a new drug use study in King County confirms a new phenomenon: heroin deaths in young adults are on the rise. 

According to the 2013 annual King County drug trends report, drug–related deaths were up overall.  Significantly, data shows heroin deaths have doubled since 2009, with a startling increase in users aged 18 to 29. Deaths among those under 30 went from 14 percent in 2009 to 34 percent in 2013.

Senior research scientist Caleb Banta-Green of the University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Use Institute says the problem began brewing in the mid-2000s when teens got hooked on prescription opiates — the stuff you’re more likely to see in the medicine cabinet like OxyContin and Vicodin.

“To your brain, heroin and OxyContin are basically the same thing. They’re interchangeable, and so that’s why we’re seeing this transition we think is prescription opiates are hard to get for those abusing them, and then switching over to heroin is frankly just a financially intelligent thing to do," he said.  

Thus the shift to heroin as teens addicted to prescription drugs become young adults. Deaths from pharmaceutical opiates did increase slightly in 2013, but are still 25 percent lower than the peak in 2009.

The report also shows another new trend: over the past two years, more people have been seeking drug treatment for the combined use of heroin and methamphetamine. The use of heroin with a stimulant, like methamphetamine, increases the chance of a fatal overdose. A few years ago, users favored cocaine as the stimulant of choice to mix with heroin, but when cocaine became more difficult to obtain, methamphetamine took its place. 

Most of those seeking treatment for combined addictions are in their 20s and 30s. Heroin-methamphetamine combination deaths also increased in 2012 and 2013, but deaths tend to be among people in their 40s. Prevention education and the opiate overdose antidote medication, known as Narcan, are becoming more common, but haven’t yet been able to stem the tide of deaths in King County.

The King County drug trends workgroup includes local substance use experts, including people working in street outreach, public health and law enforcement. 

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