Cities and towns throughout Colorado ranging from big cities like Denver to smaller towns like Palmer Lake have felt the effects of the opioid epidemic gripping the nation. No area in Colorado seems to be immune, and the state has one of the biggest problems with opioids in the country. Colorado has made strides to curb abuse of prescription drugs, but unfortunately, that seems like it may be increasing the rate of heroin use in the state.
It’s a difficult problem, and it’s not one that Colorado is alone in dealing with.
What Is Heroin?
Heroin is an illicit street drug that’s classified as an opioid and is derived from morphine. It can come in different forms including as a white or brown powder, or as a black, tar-like substance. It acts on the brain in the same way as prescription drugs, but unlike prescription opioids, heroin has no medical uses in the U.S.
Heroin can be injected, but also smoked, snorted or sniffed, and sometimes it’s mixed with crack cocaine, and this is referred to as “speedballing.”
When someone takes heroin, it acts on the brain quickly by binding to opioid receptors and along with slowing down the functionality of the central nervous system it also impacts the parts of the brain responsible for reward and pleasure. When the central nervous system is slowed down this means breathing and heart rate are also slowed.
Short term effects of using heroin can include flushing of the skin, nausea and vomiting, extreme itching, impaired judgment or mental functioning, and people will often nod out or fluctuate between consciousness and semi-consciousness. The long-term effects of heroin use can include collapsed veins if it’s injected, liver and kidney disease, mental disorders, infection of the heart lining and severe constipation.
Overdose is also very common with heroin. When you overdose on heroin, you take such a high dose that your breathing and respiratory system slows to the point that you slip into a coma or die. There has been a steep rise in heroin overdoses in recent years, including in Colorado.
Is Heroin Addictive?
Heroin is considered one of the most addictive drugs there is. Whereas with a lot of other substances people can use them recreationally and not become addicted or physically dependent, the likelihood of this happening with heroin is very low. Even when someone uses heroin just one time, they may become addicted, and this is because of the way it affects the brain.
Addiction is defined by a psychological need for a drug that is well beyond the control of the user, and below we’ll go into detail about just how and why heroin is so addictive.
Why Is Heroin So Addictive?
Heroin and other opioids bind to opioid receptors found in the brain. Heroin affects the areas of the brain that play a role in things like pleasure and reward, and when they’re stimulated in this way and flooded with the feel-good chemicals that come from the use of a drug like heroin, your brain starts to want to continue seeking out that substance. Your brain is inherently meant to seek out the things that bring you reward or pleasure, and that’s why people start to crave heroin so much. It’s their brain’s way of trying to keep getting the positive feelings of the drug.
When you use heroin, there’s not only the psychological addiction that becomes a problem. There’s also the ideas of tolerance and dependence. When you take heroin, sometimes even just a few times, your brain starts to become used to its presence. That means you need higher doses to get the euphoric high you’re likely chasing with the use of this drug. As you take more and more heroin, not only is your risk of overdose higher, but you’re also building a physical dependence.
Being physically dependent on heroin means that your body is so used to it that if you were to stop taking it, you would experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.
With heroin and all other opioids they are extremely habit-forming, psychologically and physically, and while every individual is different, these habits can form after only using the drug once or just a handful of times.
Heroin Addiction Rate
Colorado is one of the many U.S. states that are seeing serious problems resulting from heroin. For example, overdose deaths in Colorado related to all opioids outnumbered homicides in 2015. Throughout Colorado including Boulder and Denver, heroin indicators have been increasing in recent years, which includes things like deaths related to these drugs, and admissions to hospitals because of them.
Colorado and areas like Denver and Boulder aren’t alone, however. For example, it’s estimated that 13.5 million people take opioids in the world, and more than nine million of those use heroin. Opiates, with the primary focus being on heroin, account for nearly 20 percent of admissions to drug and alcohol treatment programs in the U.S.
It’s hard to know the exact addiction rate because not everyone is going to be honest or even know they are addicted to heroin, but the trends are pointing to the fact that it continues to rise. In states like Colorado where there has been a push to limit the availability of prescription opioids, this has even led to some increases in the use of heroin as an alternative.