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Prescription drug abuse continues decline, but heroin is rising

Not as many people are dying from prescription drug overdoses in Washington – but heroin abuse appears to be spiking higher. Those figures come from an annual report on drug abuse in the state.

Heroin abuse peaked in the 1990s. Since then, it's been a problem primarily for aging drug-addicts. But Caleb Banta-Green of the UW’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute says it's making a comeback among younger people:

"The major trend we are seeing right now is an increase in heroin users, and it looks like much of that increase in Washington state is young adults 18 to 29 -- and much of that growth is outside the King County region," says Banta-Green. "What we're talking about is places like Bellingham, Port Angeles and Aberdeen ... the mid-size towns."

Banta-Green says he suspects the uptick is because teenagers first get addicted to prescription painkillers -- such as oxycodone, Percoset, or codeine -- which they might get through friends or even family.

Prescription opiates remain the number one cause of overdose, causing about twice as many deaths in King County as heroin in 2011 (120 deaths vs 66 deaths).

But prescription-related deaths actually have been declining the past two years, because of campaigns to limit painkillers prescriptions and get them out of medicine cabinets. Eventually, he says, the addict turns to heroin, which is in the same family of drugs.

Heroin is typically injected by needle, so there’s likely to be a growing need for needle-exchange programs just at the time when public health budgets are scaling back. On the brighter side, it’s easier now to save someone who overdoses, because Washington'sGood Samaritan law makes it easy to get a prescription for the antidote to opiate drug overdoses (called naloxone ... find more information at

There’s no standard way to track drug abuse in our society. So, for this report, the researchers found their clues through death reports, police reports, help-line phone-calls and treatment records.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.