What About the Upswing in Opioid and Heroin Use in Young Adults?

The emergence of opioid dependence among adolescents




Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health just completed a research study focusing on the emergence of opioid dependence among adolescents, ages 12-17, emerging adults, ages 18-25, and young adults, ages 26-34, over the past ten year. The study found that there was a 37 percent increase in the likelihood of prescription opioid dependence among emerging adults and an 11 to 24 percent increase among young adults.


The study also concluded that emerging and young adults who tried prescription opioids without a prescription were four times more likely in the immediate future, and 9 times more likely over an extended time period, to experiment with heroin. Which puts them at a higher risk for later on developing the disease of addiction.


However, the study revealed that the probability for opioid abuse among adolescents, has remained relatively stable over the past ten years, and overall non-prescription use of opioids has decreased.


Even though the probability for abuse among these populations has increased, or to put it in other terms, the risk that these age groups are at for possibly suffering from substance abuse has increased, the actual amount of people who have admitted to using opioids that were not prescribed to them has decreased.


From 2002 to 2014 adolescent non-prescription opioid use decreased from 8 percent to 5 percent, emerging adult use decreased from 11 to 8 percent, and among young adults the numbers did not change.


While the decrease in usage represents a positive change, and may be a result of having stricter laws in regards to prescription opioids and greater public awareness of their dangers, the fact remains that people aged 18-34 are at an overall greater risk for becoming addicted to opioids than in years past.


While prescription opioid abuse may be on the decline, in terms of people who have used non-prescribed opioids, heroin usage has skyrocketed over the past 10 to 15 years.


From 2002 to 2013 heroin related deaths increased by 286 percent. During this same time period the amount of people who were addicted to heroin doubled as well, from 100 per 100,000 people to 200 per 100,000 people. As of 2014 the population of the United States was roughly 318.9 million people, which means that 637,800 people were addicted to heroin at this time.


These numbers all point to, and give empirical backing, to something that many people have known for quite some time- there is a growing epidemic of opioid abuse in this country and it only seems to be getting worse.


While the correlation cannot be made explicitly, there appears to be a correlation between the amount of people who were abusing prescription opioids, when they were easier to obtain and the amount of people who started abusing heroin once measures were put in place to curb prescription opioid abuse.


It appears, and as the Columbia University study suggests, that many of these people who were abusing prescription opioids have moved onto heroin usage, due to the fact that it is cheaper than prescription opioids and at this point more readily available.


The emergence of an upswing in opioid and heroin dependence among young adults was not created in a vacuum though, but rather is the result of a convergence of a number of different factors, one of the greatest being the release of Oxycontin to US markets, by Purdue Pharma in the mid 90s.


It cannot be overstated how significant this drug has been in the proliferation of opioid abuse in this country. When Oxycontin was first released it was lauded as being a safer and less addictive alternative to traditional opiates and so doctors prescribed the drug to people suffering from chronic pain without realizing the ramifications this could have. After a few years on the market it became apparent that Oxycontin was more addictive then we were initially led to believe, but by the time that this became apparent there was already a large population of people who were addicted.


Purdue Pharma was fined $600 million for misleading the general public and in turn the drug was regulated more closely by regulatory bodies, but what this did was simply just cause people, who already dependent, to seek alternative means, such as heroin, in order to get relief.


This may sound like speculation, but it is something that has been seen time and time again over the past ten years. Teens and young adults, especially those whom were in High School around the turn of the millennium, started their opiate abuse with prescription pills and then graduated to heroin when the cost became to great or their supply was cut off.


One 29 year old that I spoke to, who was addicted to heroin, told me a little bit about his story with addiction. He told me that he started abusing Oxycontin when he was 18 years old and that he didn’t realize that he was addicted until it was too late. He told me that about a month into using the drug he began to notice that if he didn’t have Oxycontin he would begin to feel terrible. When he told his friends this, they told him he was experiencing withdrawals and needless to say this scared him.


Not wanting to experience the withdrawals he remembers actually making the conscious decision to continue to use so that he wouldn’t have to feel any withdrawal symptoms. Over the next two years he abused a number of different prescription opioids, until around 2007 when they started to become scarce and expensive. At this point he switched to heroin and used that drug until he eventually got sober.


So while prescription opioid usage is on the decline, this more than likely only represents a shift in usage to heroin. The rate of overdoses that we have seen over the past few years is astounding and if something is not done about this problem soon, we will continue to senselessly lose our young adults at an alarming rate.








Rose Lockinger is a passionate member of the recovery community. A rebel who found her cause, she uses blogging and social media to raise the awareness about the disease of addiction. She has visited all over North and South America. Single mom to two beautiful children she has learned parenting is without a doubt the most rewarding job in the world. Currently the Outreach Director at Stodzy Internet Marketing.

You can find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, & Instagram

Leave a Reply