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Why Should We Tell Kids About the Opiate Epidemic?

by Pamela J. Luna, DrPH, MST

The phone rings… she does not recognize the number but decides to take the call.  The caller announces himself as the medical examiner for Seattle, Washington. Her heart begins to pound when he asks her to confirm her identity. The man clears his throat and says, “I am sorry, but we found your father dead in a tenement house here in Seattle.” More was said, but the bottom line was that her father, Danny, was gone -  and that his death was due to a heroin overdose. Nettie’s heart broke - Danny’s addiction had taken its final toll.

I met this same man long ago when we were in high school; he was a sort of cool-rebel type that played guitar and was hoping to hit the big time in a band. He dropped out of school, started using drugs like alcohol and marijuana, then progressed to prescription painkillers, and along the way he became addicted to heroin. During his nearly 40 years of drug addiction he attended inpatient programs and tried methadone clinics. He also had bouts of sobriety, yet the need to use heroin always won out.

Danny never believed he would become dependent on heroin; he was just looking for a high, an escape, a sort of a “mental vacation”- and heroin gave him that--at first--but it stole something far greater in return. He realized he did not want the life that heroin gave him. He was broken and broke, tormented by the unrelenting grip it had on him.

This is exactly why youth need to know about the risk of using opiates, and specifically, heroin. Those who don’t know or ignore these risks may find themselves addicted, broken, alone, or far worse, the subject of a phone call from a coroner to a loved one - like Danny was.

Police officers, rescue workers, drug counselors, and social workers all recognize this story; it replays, over and over, in towns large and small, rich and poor, every day. The use of opioids[1] such as heroin is rampant.  In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are calling it an “epidemic.”

So let’s break it down. What should people working with youth know about heroin and other opioids?

Where does heroin come from?

Heroin and other opioids are made from the sap of the opium poppy seed pod. The main regions of the world where opium crops are grown on a large scale are Southwest Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan supplies about 75% of the world’s heroin, yet most of what is found in the U.S. market comes from Mexico and Columbia.

Once harvested, it takes several processing steps for opium to become heroin.  In powder form, its color can vary from white to brownish (usually coming from Asia), or it can be dark and sticky or hard, a variety known as “black tar” heroin (coming from Mexico). Generally, the whiter the powder the higher the purity; black tar and hard forms are considered to be crude, low-grade versions.

By the time it is harvested, processed, and passed along distribution channels to get to street dealers and users, heroin has often been “cut,” or combined, with other substances ranging from sugar to brick dust to glass to a host of dangerous and deadly chemicals, such as Fentanyl, another synthetic opioid, which is 50 times stronger than heroin. Fentanyl’s availability on the street is increasing, showing up either in a pressed pill form, or in other drugs that come in powdered form, like cocaine. These practices further confirm that the user has no guarantee on the final contents and purity of what they are buying; thus, and often, this results in adverse and sometimes fatal outcomes.  

Laws regarding the use of heroin differ around the world but in the U.S., heroin is classified as a Schedule I drug, meaning it is not approved for medical use and cannot be prescribed; therefore, possession is illegal.

What are opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs that include prescription pain medications and heroin. They are highly effective for use in pain management. Opioid drugs work by attaching themselves to pain receptors mainly in the brain and spinal cord to reduce the perception of pain in addition to triggering the release of dopamine (a neurotransmitter), which  brings about a feeling of euphoria and pleasure. However, common side-effects of opioid use are drowsiness, confusion, slowed or depressed breathing, constipation, constriction of pupils, nausea, vomiting, and dry mouth.

Other opioid drugs prescribed by medical doctors to manage moderate to severe pain include oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, and morphine. Brand names include OxyContin, Vicodin, Norco, and Percocet. These are most often distributed in a pill form but can be dissolved in a liquid. These drugs are legally manufactured in pharmaceutical labs. Differences in these similarly-derived drugs include combining them with an analgesic or employing a time-release component.

How are opioids used and abused?

Prescribed opioids are most often swallowed. Abusers of opioid pills may also crush them so that they can be sniffed, or mix them with water and “cook” them to dissolve the powder and inject the solution into the blood stream with a needle and syringe. Heroin users can also sniff, smoke, or inject the drug into their blood stream in a similar way.

Opioid drugs can be very addictive, as the body soon develops a physiological dependency, increasingly relying on the drug to reduce pain. In addition, opioids and especially heroin bring on an enhanced feeling of euphoria that is sought out by the user. It is a much heightened sensation that the body is unable to produce on its own. Even after a few weeks of use, and sometimes sooner, users develop a tolerance for the drug and will need to increase the dosage to get the desired effect. They will also experience symptoms of withdrawal when they try to stop using the drug. Typical withdrawal symptoms can be mild to severe and are often flu-like: runny nose, chills, and aches, progressing to extreme vomiting, diarrhea, shivering, joint pain, and muscle cramping.  Because withdrawal can be so difficult to endure, the addicted person will often revert to using the drug rather than pursing or continuing treatment.

How big of a problem is opioid abuse?

Both the prescribed and illegal use of opioids has risen dramatically over the past several years. The CDC recently reported that heroin use has more than doubled among young adults ages 18-25 in the past decade, and that heroin-related deaths have increased fivefold. The statistics are similar for prescription opioids. Federal agencies note that, in the U.S., more people die annually from opioid overdose than from motor vehicle accidents or guns. 

The rapid rise in opioid abuse has been attributed to the recent increase in painkiller prescriptions. Health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opiates in 2012, enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills. The highly aggressive marketing campaign for OxyContin, one of the most abused opiates, is also considered by many to be a key culprit in today’s epidemic. Exacerbating the problem, heroin is inexpensive and relatively easy to get. As prescription opioids become more difficult to get, the user can readily find heroin on the street to continue their addiction. Add to this the powerfully addictive properties of opiates and you have the recipe for the current epidemic. 

Studies have shown that a heroin user typically used/abused other “gateway” drugs, particularly prescription opioids, prior to using heroin. It can also be quite common for users to combine heroin with other psychoactive substances. This is known as poly-drug use. Mixing any opiate with other drugs such as alcohol, cocaine, or marijuana increases the likelihood of harmful effects as the drugs interact and the results are magnified and unpredictable. An overdose causes very slow breathing to the point of suffocation, low heart rate or heart failure, convulsions, coma, and even death.

Risks of using injectable drugs

Injecting drugs like heroin using syringes and needles, particularly when shared with others or used in non- sterile conditions, carries significant risk for contracting aggressive skin infections, as well as viruses and diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. In an effort to minimize risk of disease transmission, governments have implemented needle exchange programs in many states and countries. This occurs when a needle user goes to a specified place or person, authorized by state and/or local governments, that is licensed to exchange used needles and syringes for sterile ones. This has been proven to be effective strategy in reducing the transmission of disease by sharing contaminated needles.

Treating opioid addiction and overdose

Medical Assisted Treatment or MAT for opioid dependency includes behavioral therapy, counseling and drugs.  Buprenorphine and Methadone are legally-manufactured synthetic opioids and are often used to transition people off of heroin while avoiding the negative withdrawal symptoms. These do not provide the euphoric high of heroin, but the effect is typically longer-lasting than heroin and requires fewer doses. Unfortunately, they are also addictive. For example, methadone treatment requires one daily dose, in contrast to needing several daily doses of heroin. Under a physician’s supervision and over an extended period of time, the dosage can be gradually reduced to eventually wean the person off of methadone or other drug therapies.

The drug Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan or Evzio, is used to reverse the deadly effects of an opiate overdose. It is given either by injection under the skin, into a large muscle (thigh, buttocks, shoulder) or via nasal spray. Most emergency medical personnel have it available to use on overdose patients, and some states and countries will even prescribe Naloxone to non-medical people such as family members or friends of those using opioids, especially heroin, to have on-hand in case of a serious overdose event. It must be administered soon after the onset of overdose symptoms, such as slow or stopped breathing and loss of consciousness. Once given, breathing typically will return to a near normal rate and the person will awaken. However, multiple doses may be required for the user to regain consciousness and sustain breathing; urgent medical attention is still needed to stabilize the overdose victim and seek recovery.

What can educators do?

It the midst of this public health crisis it is critical to look upstream to see what can be done to prevent use. Educators play a key role in informing youth and parents about opioids and related risks. Teachers can designate some class time for informational and role-playing sessions to help youth develop the motivation and requisite social skills to confront the pressures to use drugs. Keep current with updates from reliable and trusted sources such as the DEA, NIH, and CDC and the materials listed in the resources section of this guide. Reach out to other professionals in schools, law enforcement, and health professions to work together in combating the opiate epidemic. Also inform parents, grandparents, and guardians of this escalating problem, and remind them to store prescribed medications out of the reach of youth.

It is essential to use evidence-based instructional materials that have been demonstrated to be effective in lowering drug use and changing related attitudes and intentions. Project ALERT, developed by RAND, is one such program. Please check out our new Heroin and Other Opioids: Information for Educators and Youth supplemental guide.

One of the most satisfying rewards of working with youth is helping them to achieve their hopes and dreams; drug addiction is a sure way to derail someone’s future and deprive us all of the contributions and talents they could have given to the world. We don’t need more stories like Danny’s.


Sources and further reading

Anderson, K. (2013). Why Needle Exchange Is Good for Your Community. Psychology Today. As of August 19, 2016, available at:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Expanding Naloxone use could reduce drug overdose deaths and save lives. As of August 19, 2016, available at:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Opioid Painkiller Prescribing. As of August 19, 2016, available at:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Injury Prevention & Control: Opioid Overdose – Understanding the Epidemic. As of August 19, 2016, available at:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Today’s Heroin Epidemic. As of August 19, 2016, available at:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Opioid Data Analysis. As of August 19, 2016, available at:

Cullison,  Alan, & Dorsey, James M.Targeting terrorists’ drug money, US puts itself in an awkward situation,” The Wall Street Journal, October 2, 2001, p. 1. As of August 19, 2016, available at:

Drug Enforcement Administration. (2015). 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment. As of August 19, 2016, available at:

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2016). Raising Awareness of Opioid Addiction. As of August 22, 2016, available at:

Giglio, R.E., Guohua, L., DiMaggio, C.J. (2015). Effectiveness of bystander naloxone administration and overdose education programs: A meta-analysis. Injury Epidemiology, 2:10. As of August 19, 2016, available at:

Gounder, C. “Who is responsible for the pain-pill epidemic?” The New Yorker; November 8, 2013. As of August 19, 2016, available at:

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2014). Prescription Opioid and Heroin Abuse. As of August 19, 2016, available at:

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2015). Prescription Opioids and Heroin. As of August 19, 2016, available at:

Office of National Drug Control Policy. (n.d.). The International Heroin Market. As of August 19, 2016, available at:

Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. (2016). Epidemic. As of August 22, 2016, available at:

Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. (2016). Heroin and Other Opioids: From Understanding to Action. As of August 19, 2016 at:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Naloxone. As of August 19, 2016, available at:

U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2016). Opiate and opioid withdrawal. MedlinePlus. As of August 19, 2016, available at:


[1] The term “opioid” is used for the entire family of opiates including natural, synthetic, and semi-synthetic opiates.


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