Profile of a Heroin Scare

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

Vermont’s governor famously devoted his entire State of the State Address to Vermont’s heroin crisis. And, so, it was natural for a new heroin scare to be featured on NBC’s recent program, “Hooked: America’s Heroin Epidemic.”

Here are two principle features of such “Hooked” stories:

  1. Many middle class people are heroin addicts, and die as a result. A plausible middle class person has to be featured as a heroin addict in order to reinforce the idea that addiction befalls everyone equally. On NBC, the heroin user was the son of two doctors who themselves treat drug abusers!

    When a news program scans the streets in any locale most known for heroin dealing, they show run-down areas of Vermont, or of Appalachia, or inner city ghettos. These news features always ask us to suspend our disbelief that the middle class is equally susceptible to heroin addiction, and especially shine a light on the well-known entertainment figures, like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who die from heroin use.

    Middle class people are less likely to be addicted to heroin and cocaine, to cigarettes, and to alcohol – even though a much higher proportion of college-educated people than those with high school diplomas drink.-Stanton PeeleBut, the belief they ask us to suspend is true. Middle class people are less likely to be addicted to heroin and cocaine, to cigarettes, and to alcohol – even though a much higher proportion of college-educated people than those with high school diplomas drink. And no one really believes that better-off and the disadvantaged are equally susceptible to drug addiction. Do you believe that just as many college graduates and high school drop-outs become addicted to heroin? If you do, then you would also say you don’t think it’s important for inner city kids to achieve higher education in order to become productive, non-substance-abusing people.
  2. No matter what your personal resources are, you are equally unlikely to be able to get off of heroin. Of course, first we have to deal with the young man whose parents are physicians featured on the NBC segment. Still very young, he has been off of heroin for a year (full recovery – stable remission – defined as a year clean in the psychiatric diagnostic manual, DSM).

    And why do you think he succeeded in kicking heroin? Would it be the concern of his parents, his stable home, the potential he has to go on to be a successful professional – perhaps a doctor – himself? If you imagined these were critical factors in remission, you’d be 100% right. Personal resources, support systems, and future opportunities, taken together, are the single greatest predictor of remission from drug addiction.
The Interesting Case of Lexington, Kentucky
spoon with powder and needle But we have much more to refute this idea with than the actual case of heroin use NBC selected to focus on in its heroin epidemic story. Recently, opposing my writings on the natural recovery trend for addicts of all types, a psychologist blogger cited 1960s research about the incredibly high relapse rate (90%) found among heroin addicts treated at the federal Public Health Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky.

Which individuals would you imagine were most likely to be discovered as heroin addicts in the 1960s and sent to Lexington? That’s right, inner city heroin users. But there were two groups treated at Lexington; along with known street addicts were physician addicts identified due to their purloining of carefully regulated pharmaceutical narcotic supplies.

Do you think the recovery rate is better for the physicians, or for the street addicts? Would you be surprised to learn that the recovery rates were exactly reversed, with 90 percent of the physicians recovering? That was the result of the sister study to the research finding the overwhelming relapse among urban ghetto addicts, “Physician Narcotic Addicts,” in 1961, the year before Charles Winick published “Maturing Out of Narcotic Addiction.”

The National Household Survey of Drug Use and Health records those who have used each type of illicit substance over their lifetimes, and in the past month. For heroin, in 2012, two percent (1.9%) of Americans had ever used heroin; one-tenth of 1 percent used in the last month.-Stanton PeeleAs to the later study, while they often relapsed in the short run, in the long run, Winick found, two-thirds to three-quarters of inner city heroin addicts, who as a group began using heroin in their late teens and early twenties, quit heroin by their mid-thirties. Oh, you don’t think that people quit using heroin ever? Once again, as I often do, consider the government’s own statistics. The National Household Survey of Drug Use and Health records those who have used each type of illicit substance over their lifetimes, and in the past month. For heroin, in 2012, two percent (1.9%) of Americans had ever used heroin; one-tenth of 1 percent used in the last month: .1/1.9 = 5 percent of those who have ever used heroin used it all in the past month. (Don’t blame me for these numbers – blame the government!)

Why Heroin and Not Prescription Painkillers?
Side Note Picture By the way, the NBC segment featured heroin use. Do you think that is the most prevalent illicit narcotic use in the United States? Fourteen percent (14.3%) of Americans have ever illicitly used painkillers – seven times the rate of ever heroin users. And within the past month, two percent had used painkillers illegally – twenty times the rate of recent heroin users.

I wonder why NBC featured heroin and not illicit painkiller use – overdoses from which many more Americans die than due to heroin overdoses. And these painkiller overdoses are growing rapidly: writing in 2013, the New York Times noted, “In 2010, more than 6,600 women died from a painkiller overdose, a big leap from about 1,300 in 1999, though still fewer than the 10,000 deaths among men.”

Well, painkillers just don’t inspire drug scares like heroin does, do they?


Also Read: Addiction Treatment is Changing by Stanton Peele

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