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Drug Abusers Often Switch to Cheaper Option, Heroin

Update Date: May 28, 2014 04:08 PM EDT

In a new study, researchers examined the drug use trends in addicts. The team from Washington University School of Medicine located in St. Louis found that people who abuse prescription drugs were very likely to turn to heroin because the drug delivers a "high" at an affordable price.

"In the past, heroin was a drug that introduced people to narcotics," said principal investigator Theodore J. Cicero, PhD. "But what we're seeing now is that most people using heroin begin with prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, Percocet or Vicodin, and only switch to heroin when their prescription drug habits get too expensive."

For this study, the researchers examined information on over 150 drug treatment centers throughout the United States. Based on survey answers gathered from 2010 to 2013, the researchers counted more than 9,000 addicts who used narcotic painkillers, such as opioids. Out of this number, nearly 2,800 of them had reported that heroin was their primary drug choice. The team then focused on 54 unstructured interviews regarding drug use.

The researchers outlined three main factors that would explain why drug abusers are switching from prescription drugs to heroin and not the other way around. First, heroin is cheaper and more accessible. Second, the "high" one gets from the drug is enjoyable. Third, the drug is easy to ingest.

"The price on the street for prescription painkillers, like OxyContin, got very expensive," Cicero said according to the press release. "It has sold for up to a dollar per milligram, so an 80 milligram tablet would cost $80. Meanwhile, they can get heroin for $10."

The findings suggest that creating drug deterrent formulas would not necessarily prevent people from using drugs. Without treatment or care, drug addicts would just move from one drug to the next. The researchers believe that policymakers need to create different kinds of ways to reduce drug abuse rates.

"If you make abuse-deterrent formulations of these drugs and make it harder to get high, these people aren't just going to stop using drugs," said Cicero, who is also a professor of neuropharmacology in psychiatry. "As we made it more difficult to use one drug, people simply migrated to another. Policymakers weren't ready for that, and we certainly didn't anticipate a shift to heroin."

The study was published in JAMA Psychiatry.

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