Why Does Utah Have a Heroin Problem?
~Guest post by C. Zavala
Sixty percent of Utahns are members of The Church of Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, which discourages its members from using alcohol or drugs at all. Many Mormons even eschew caffeine, due to their religion’s insistence on avoiding harmful substances. With those kinds of statistics, you might think that addiction in general – and heroin addiction specifically, wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar in Utah.
You’d be wrong. Utah has been hit hard by the prescription opiate epidemic that has ravaged the nation for over a decade. Lawmakers have taken steps to curb the abuse of prescription opiates in Utah, where 23 people still die from prescription opiate overdoses each month. But many Utahns, already mired in opiate addiction, aren’t responding to prescription opiate abuse crackdowns by giving up drugs; instead, they’re turning to heroin, which is now cheaper and easier to get.
The Lure of Prescription Drugs
Utah ranks eighth in the country for deaths from prescription drug overdose, and 71 percent of those fatalities are linked to prescription opiate abuse. But why would residents of Utah – who are statistically some of the healthiest people in the country, allow themselves to succumb to drug addiction and death, even against the tenets of their
most popular religion?
According to CNN’s Lisa Ling, prescription opiate abuse and addiction are rampant in Utah because people there, like people throughout the country, assume that the pills are safe because they’re prescribed by doctors. While Mormon teachings do discourage members of the church from using substances like caffeine, alcohol, and illegal drugs, those restrictions do not extend to prescription drugs. Many of the Utahns now struggling with opiate addiction got their first taste of the drugs when they were prescribed opiate painkillers to cope with an injury or a chronic pain condition. While some people can use these drugs for pain with no adverse consequences, others become addicted.
But it’s not just pain patients who are getting hooked on opiates in Utah. Many young people have also fallen into heroin addiction after experimenting with prescription opiates obtained from classmates or from their own parents’ medicine cabinets. Like their elders, teens and young adults assume these drugs must be safer than illegal street drugs because they’re prescribed by physicians. Pills are easy for young people to conceal at school and home, and they don’t need to be injected.
In an effort to curb the problem, lawmakers and prescription opiate manufacturers have taken steps to make these drugs harder to obtain and harder to use. But that’s not stopping determined addicts. When pill manufacturers made OxyContin harder to abuse, addicts turned to abusing Roxycodone, a different opiate painkiller. When lawmakers took steps to get prescription opiates off the streets, desperate addicts turned to shooting heroin instead. Experts believe that, had prescription opiates not been available initially, many of these people would have never dreamed of
trying heroin, because of the stigma attached to its abuse.
Help for Utah’s Opiate Addicts
In 2012, 95 people died of heroin overdoses in Utah, and 268 people died from prescription opiate overdoses. Hundreds more are struggling to
overcome addiction and move on with their lives. Between 2011 and
2012, public substance abuse treatment admissions in Utah skyrocketed
by 700 percent. Some residents are moving out-of-state for treatment
at a methadone clinic for heroin addicts, to get a fresh start away from the
people, places, and things that remind them of opiate abuse. Utah is
also seeing an influx of opiate addicts who come here from
surrounding states to seek treatment, for the same reason. Many of
these people have been able to turn their lives around.
At the same time, the loved ones of those who succumbed to the opiate addiction epidemic are agitating for further change. Sandra Kesser of Salt Lake City, who lost her son Josh to opiate addiction, is treasurer of Advocates for the Reform of Prescription Opioids and Fed Up!, a coalition that is working to bring about a moratorium on FDA approval of new prescription opiate drugs, and for a change in
FDA leadership. Members of both organizations place the blame for the nation’s opiate addiction epidemic squarely on the shoulders of the FDA.
Despite being home to some of the country’s healthiest residents, Utah is among the states suffering the most from the heroin and prescription painkiller epidemic that continues to rage on unchecked throughout the country. If you or
someone you love is struggling with opiate addiction, get help now, before it’s too late.
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