Three persistent myths about heroin use and overdose deaths

February 7, 2014 by Shane Darke, Michael Farrell, The Conversation
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death has caused old myths about heroin to come to the fore again. Credit: ANDREW GOMBERT/EPA

Philip Seymour Hoffman's death earlier this week from a suspected heroin overdose unleashed the usual media coverage of deaths related to this drug. While the actor's actual cause of death has not yet been determined, it's important to separate the truth from the myths about heroin use and overdose.

There are few areas as replete with myth as heroin use. Common misconceptions include that this is a problem of young people, that there are a large number of highly functioning "recreational" users of the drug, and that overdose deaths are due to variations in drug purity (or impurities).

The persistence of these myths is intriguing because from the past 40 years has repeatedly shown all of them to be false.

Youthful users

The myth that heroin is a young person's problem is based on the belief that people "mature out" of use by their late 20s. This is belied by the fact that a third of are aged over 40.

In fact, the average age at death from overdose is in the late 30s, and fewer than 5% of cases are teenagers. What's more, we're now seeing overdose fatalities aged in their 50s and 60s.

Australian research from 2013 found overdose deaths among 35- to 44-year-olds had risen sharply in the past few years, as had deaths among 45- to 54-year-olds. Indeed, this latter group is the only one where deaths rates are now higher than the 2001 peak of heroin deaths in Australia. After 2001, overdose deaths declined significantly as a result of a heroin shortage.

The most common trajectory is for heroin use to commence in the late teens, and to persist through cycles of treatment and relapse for decades. Some give up early, but they represent less than a tenth of those who take up the drug.

The astonishing chronicity of heroin dependence is one of its most outstanding characteristics.

All those functional injectors

The myth regarding a large, hidden group of highly functional users has no evidence at all to support it; the evidence from treatment, from fatalities, and from epidemiological studies is clear.

The typical picture of an active heroin user is a dependent, long-term unemployed person, with a long history of treatment and relapse, and a history of imprisonment. Heroin is simply not the sort of drug that could be termed "recreational" because very few people use it in a non-dependent, non-compulsive fashion.

Unlike cocaine, where the evidence from both epidemiological studies and studies of fatalities show a group of high socioeconomic status "snorters" of the drug, and a group of lower socioeconomic status injectors, no such patterns emerges for heroin.

If recreational users exist, they are a rare phenomenon.

Death from impurities

The purity myth is perhaps the most persistent of all, even though the epidemiological evidence shows quite clearly that variations in purity are only modestly related to the number of deaths.

Deaths are concentrated among long-term users with high opioid tolerance. What's more, in a large proportion of fatal cases, the concentration of morphine (the major metabolite of heroin) is low.

Indeed, the impurity myth, that overdose deaths are not due to heroin but to toxic impurities, has absolutely no evidence at all to support it.

If there's one thing we can quite clearly say about heroin deaths, it's that impurities are rarely, if ever, found or are relevant to the death. Those that are found are typically innocuous substances, such as sucrose.

The substantial rise in pharmaceutical opioid deaths around the world, and the United States in particular, show that opioids of known purity, and with no impurities, are killing increasing numbers of people.

Actual causes of death

What does kill heroin users is polydrug use. More specifically, the use of heroin with other central nervous system depressants, such as alcohol and the benzodiazepines. Death is due to respiratory depression, from the combined effects of these substances.

While one of these will not kill if taken alone, together they are toxic. That's why we see a large number of deaths with low morphine concentrations.

Indeed, we recently published research that showed the pharmaceutical opioid epidemic and the toxicology of overdose together illustrate that legalising drugs such as heroin wouldn't reduce because it's not purity or impurities that are causing these fatalities.

Myths matter. It's only by a clear understanding of the life course of heroin dependence, and the ways in which the drug kills, that we can make evidence-based interventions to help people addicted to .

Explore further: Actor's death spotlights heroin epidemic

More information: Darke, S. and Farrell, M. (2014), "Would legalizing illicit opioids reduce overdose fatalities? Implications from a natural experiment." Addiction. DOI: 10.1111/add.12456

Related Stories

Actor's death spotlights heroin epidemic

February 4, 2014
The shocking death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from a suspected drugs overdose has spotlighted a growing epidemic of heroin use across the United States, officials warn.

Death from drugs like oxycodone linked to disadvantaged neighborhoods, fragmented families

October 17, 2013
Death from analgesic overdose, including the painkillers oxycodone and codeine, is more concentrated in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods with a prevalence of high divorce, single-parent homes than deaths from unintentional ...

Australia: Heroin and opioid deaths on the rise

October 10, 2012
A total of 500 Australians aged 15 to 54 died from accidental opioid overdoses in 2008 and preliminary estimates suggest deaths of this nature will be higher again in 2009 and 2010, according to the National Drug and Alcohol ...

Heroin availability increasing across Washington state

June 12, 2013
New data from the University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute indicates increases in heroin availability, abuse and deaths across the state, particularly among young adults ages 18-29. These increases are ...

Study probes heroin addiction's effect on the brain

November 11, 2013
(HealthDay)—Long-term heroin use changes how genes are activated in the brain, which leads to changes in brain function, according to a new study.

Prescription overdose rate reaches epidemic levels in NYC

February 3, 2013
The rate of drug overdose from prescription opioids increased seven-fold in New York City over a 16-year period and was concentrated especially among white residents of the city, according to latest research at Columbia University's ...

Recommended for you

Concern with potential rise in super-potent cannabis concentrates

July 21, 2017
University of Queensland researchers are concerned the recent legalisation of medicinal cannabis in Australia may give rise to super-potent cannabis concentrates with associated harmful effects.

Findings link aldosterone with alcohol use disorder

July 18, 2017
A new study led by scientists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health, demonstrates that aldosterone, a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, may contribute ...

Depression among young teens linked to cannabis use at 18

July 17, 2017
A study looking at the cumulative effects of depression in youth, found that young people with chronic or severe forms of depression were at elevated risk for developing a problem with cannabis in later adolescence.

Why does prenatal alcohol exposure increase the likelihood of addiction?

July 7, 2017
One of the many negative consequences when fetuses are exposed to alcohol in the womb is an increased risk for drug addiction later in life. Neuroscientists in the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions are ...

Researchers say U.S. policies on drugs and addiction could use a dose of neuroscience

June 23, 2017
Tens of thousands of Americans die from drug overdoses every year – around 50,000 in 2015 – and the number has been steadily climbing for at least the last decade and a half, according to the National Institute on Drug ...

Study provides further support for genetic factors underlying addictions

June 13, 2017
Impairment of a particular gene raises increases susceptibility to opioid addiction liability as well as vulnerability to binge eating according to a new study.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Feb 08, 2014
"The typical picture of an active heroin user is a dependent, long-term unemployed person, with a long history of treatment and relapse, and a history of imprisonment."

How do people suddenly get such a history? This is obviously flawed logic. It is like erroneous the statement "the average child is 5 years old".

Heroin uses may all end up with same history but, providing usage is stable, users will be at the beginning, middle and end stages of the addition and pre-addiction uses (those who have used it once or twice) and those who later become addicts but are yet to try the drug do not do so because of compulsion, withdrawal avoidance and so on.

No users commit crime to raise money for their first hit...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.