Heroin use is becoming an issue in rural communities across the state and country and with recent high profile deaths from using the drug in the news, the dangers are apparent.
But kicking heroin addiction takes a lifetime and can be a long, difficult process for many people.
“The neurobiology is so significant here,” said Chris Hartlep, outpatient alcohol and drug counselor for the Human Service Center. “Heroin is a really hard, addictive drug that is hard to break.”
And that is an area of concern as Hartlep said he has seen an increase in cases steadily during the last few years.
“I can say I have seen an increase within the last three years,” he said. “We have seen more heroin referrals.”
Hartlep said the difference with this heroin epidemic than other increased drug use in the past is how many heroin addicts get started on the drug.
“We get a wide variety of why people are seeking services,” he said. “It is not just all legal referrals. The history of the clients and the progression of their addiction, a majority started out on opiates as a result of chronic pain, post surgery or injury.”
Hartlep said patients can develop a tolerance to the pain medications and could up their doses. Medications like vicadin and oxycodone are also opiate based like heroin.
Addicts will begin to take more and more prescription medications as their tolerance increases. That is where economics can play a role.
“There are safeguards in place,” Hartlep said. “If a doctor has a patient, who has 20 doses of oxycodone but is going through them quickly, they won’t refill that prescription.”
That could send the addict to the illegal drug trade where drugs like vicadin and oxycodone have a more expensive street value.
“If someone is taking four, five, six vicadin, they can get a packet of heroin for much cheaper,” Hartlep said.
And that ability to buy heroin on the street is getting easier in rural areas as dealers are moving in to meet the demand.
“There is a myth that this is a city problem,” Hartlep said. “What is changing is the dealers are coming to where the demand is.”
With heroin in the area, Hartlep said it is dangerous for many reasons, not least of all is death.
“There is a misconception about how hard this drug is,” Hartlep said.
Users have risk for hepatitis, weight loss, high risk behaviors and a significant chance of overdose and death.
Treatment is a hard road for an addict but could save a life.
“Treatment is a long term, major change,” Hartlep said. “There is the physical, emotional, many times dealing with the affects of poor nutrition and finding ways to change behavior.”
Hartlep said the urge to return to heroin is strong so recovering addicts need to be taught how to deal with triggers.
“They could be driving by a house where there used to be a dealer or seeing an old friend, those things can trigger the urge,” he said. “Addicts have to be taught how to deal with those things when they come up.”