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Heroin becoming the scourge of 20-somethings


There are two versions of this story.

One is the story of how drug-abuse involving heroin has spiked upward, especially in young adults, over the past decade. Drug experts say people end up on heroin as a last resort, after getting addicted to prescription painkillers.

That version is in the news this week, and has made headlines for the past few years, when annual drug trends come out.

The second story is that the heroin crisis in Washington might be tapering off, aside from a specific age group.

These are people in their 20s, who sadly came of age during a time when prescription painkillers – known generally as opiates -- were easy to get. That was the middle of the last decade.

The peak came five years ago, when record numbers of teenagers were raiding medicine cabinets and buying pills, said Caleb Banta-Green, a drug-abuse researcher at the University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

They were already addicted when government officials finally found ways to make the pills harder to get, and harder to abuse, starting around 2008, and ramping up since then.

"Prescription opiates went from nowhere ten years ago to pretty much everywhere in the state. And when that supply went away, all these people were still addicted, there was still demand for opiates all across the state, and heroin became available," said Banta-Green.

Heroin is the cheapest version of this class of drugs, the opiates. It’s typically injected by needle and one of the most dangerous of illegal drugs.

The number of people in their 20s who are asking for heroin treatment has doubled in the last few years, according to Banta-Green's latest report. And the state crime lab shows a rapid rise in heroin busts, up until 2011.

The glimmer of good news: heroin busts went down last year. And last year’s statewide survey of high-school students shows a declining interest in prescription painkillers.

Together, these are two signs that the biggest heroin crisis could remain with that cohort of young adults who are already hooked.

Unfortunately, 0piates cause a physical dependence that lasts a lifetime. They need treatment, and public funding isn't keeping up with the demand. However, there are safe medications that can help an addict lead a normal life.

A number of steps people can take to prevent overdose and death are listed at, including information about an antidote called naloxone.

Also, according to the report:

  • The largest increases in heroin use and abuse in Washington state were outside of metropolitan areas, where drug treatment and awareness are lowest.
  • Overdose deaths from heroin or related prescription drugs more than doubled in

    Cowlitz, Snohomish, Grays Harbor, Chelan, Lewis, Mason, Thurston, Benton and Kitsap counties between 2000 and 2011.

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.