There are many reasons why one might decide to begin to use drugs. Some people use drugs to deal with personal loss or depression, hoping it might help to provide some type of escape. Others might feel pressured by their peer group and choose to engage in drugs because they want to belong to that group. Regardless of the reason, many people each year use drugs for the first time. Often, once is enough to create an addiction that can lead to a harmful path of drug abuse leading to addiction. Heroin is one of the most addictive drugs and substances in the world. It is also one of the most popularly used narcotics in the United States; as of 2002, there were roughly 980,000 heroin addicts in the country (Merrill, 2002, p. 361). It is more dangerous than many other drugs, including caffeine or marijuana, and has the most potential for harmful results. This is largely due to the fact that it is an intravenous drug; users inject heroin directly into their bloodstream using a syringe.
Heroin is an opioid; a narcotic derived from the opium plant (Stephens, 1991, p. 4). In the United States, it comes from Mexico and Colombia, with the majority of Colombian heroin used in the Eastern states and Mexican heroin used mostly in the Western states (Ciccarone, 2009, p. 280). It is distributed mostly in powder form, except for a strain of Mexican heroin called “black tar heroin,” which is a solid form (Ciccarone, 2009, p. 280). It is classified as a psychoactive drug, causing a primary impact on the nervous system (Stephens, 1991, p. 3). It is consumed in many different ways, but most commonly it is used intravenously. It can also be snorted in powder form or smoked, either laced with another substance such as marijuana or on its own. Heroin is known mostly as an illegal street drug. However, there are some legal uses for various forms of heroin, as it is known to relieve physical pain and cause euphoric feelings and sentiments. Narcotics are prescribed only for patients with serious chronic pain and it is not very common that they are used due to the extremely high risk for addiction.
Heroin abuse causes many biological and chemical interactions that have a significant impact on the physical body of the user. Since it is a psychoactive drug, it has a direct affect on the central nervous system and the brain. When the drug enters the user’s bloodstream it makes its way to the brain and interferes with the receptors within the brain, causing changes to the way that the brain is functioning. The blood-brain barrier (BBB) is a part of the brain that acts as a defense mechanism that protects the brain from foreign and potentially dangerous substances that enter the blood stream (Gibb, 2007). Smaller cells, like that of water and oxygen, are allowed to get through while larger cells must be allowed through only by recognition. For example, glucose is composed of larger cells but it is permitted to pass the BBB because the brain recognizes the chemical and has a specific transportation pathway for glucose (Gibb, 2007). Most drugs are composed of cells that are too large to pass through the BBB directly, which is why many people have developed newer ways to get heroin in their system, like injecting it directly into the veins (Gibb, 2007). However, some drugs also contain tiny nanoparticles that can bypass the BBB and enter the brain (Gibb, 2007). Once heroin enters the brain, it changes the chemical composition and disrupts the production of endorphins, which creates the euphoric sensations while numbing any physical pain. Drug addiction is caused by the psychology of the user’s brain because the drug user develops a dependency on the chemical released by their drug of choice. This dependency differs depending on the individual. Every brain has a cerebral pleasure center that register feelings of pleasure when the person does something they enjoy; the feeling of pleasure is extremely desirable and it is human nature to want to repeatedly trigger this pleasure center of the brain (Cooper, 1972, p. 54). Using drugs triggers this part of the brain. Heroin users have claimed that the high they get from heroin is “orgasmic,” and feels to them like an orgasm from sexual intercourse (Cooper, 1972, p. 54). In this sense, heroin users have been known to use the drug as a replacement for sexual pleasure, as they see no need for engaging in sexual activity when they are getting their pleasure from drugs (Cooper, 1972, p. 55). Therefore, people become addicted to the feeling of pleasure that arises from a heroin high, and once that high is over they immediately seek to engage it again. The addiction and dependency on heroin also causes a biological, or physical, dependency because the brain has sent the message to the rest of the body that it needs the drug in order to function and feel better.
Addiction to heroin can have serious repercussions and cause damaging effects on one’s personal, professional, and societal life. On a personal level, there are many dangers and consequences for engaging in these substances in regards to physical and mental health. Intravenous drug users are among the highest percentage of the population at risk for contracting HIV and AIDS (Stephens, 1991, p. 1). One of the highest risks for HIV/AIDS transmission is through sharing needles. Injection is also a risk factor for other bacterial infections, hepatitis C, tetanus, and tissue infections (Ciccarone, 2009, p. 281). Intravenous users are also subject to venous scarring and infections from various injection insertion points on the body (Ciccarone, 2009, p. 281). Other physical damages to the user’s body include loss of taste or smell, dry mouth, nausea, immune damage, organ failure, heart issues, and fever. These symptoms can also get worse with withdrawals. There are also societal dangers that come from heroin abuse. Female heroin addicts are at risk for sexual violence and abuse, as many women who become desperate for the drug have been known to trade sexual acts for drugs (Stephens, 1991, p. 1). This also puts these women at risk for pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and rape. This is also not limited to females, as males have been known to enter prostitution in exchange for drugs and are also at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, rape, and AIDS. There are many psychological affects that addiction to and use of heroin can cause. Heroin changes the way that the brain perceives reality, influencing everything from mood to behavior. Many heroin addicts are diagnosed with mental issues or personality disorders, most commonly schizophrenia and sociopathy (Stephens, 1991, p. 2). This can also cause damage to the brain’s development and prevent the brain from improving conditions or gaining new knowledge or skills. Memory loss can also be a risk factor with the abuse of any type of drug. Many of the health conditions that arise from heroin abuse, whether they are physical or psychological, can lead to high medical costs. Therefore, the heroin abuser is likely to enter a financial debt upon treatment for any of these diseases, illnesses, or disabilities.
A heroin user’s professional life suffers very much from their constant use of the substance because it can ultimately lead to unemployment and loss of income. Since heroin alters the way that the user’s brain functions and perceives reality, this changes the behaviors and attitudes of the user when they are at work. They are often no longer able to perform the functions of their job, and are likely to get fired. In turn, this affects one’s societal life because they are placed on a different level within their society. Many people who lose their job due to drug addiction lose their source of income, often leading to homelessness. This cases the person down in society among the lowest forms of humanity, as many people do not look upon homeless people the same as they do anyone else. In addition, homelessness comes with extra physical and psychological risks such as vulnerability to disease and suffering from the natural elements. In addition to this, heroin is still expensive. Many people who have lost their job or do not have a source of income still must find a way to obtain their dosage. Therefore, many people begin to engage in criminal acts in order to get drug money. These crimes can include anything from major or minor theft, prostitution, robbery, or even murder.
There are many treatment options that are available for those who are suffering from heroin addiction. One of the most popular treatments for heroin addiction is the use of methadone through clinics and rehabilitation programs. This is a long term substance replacement therapy and it is proven to be the most effective method of treating heroin addiction. Through these programs, former heroin users utilize methadone to maintain their addiction and withdrawal symptoms (Shi et al., 2007, p. 141). In addition, methadone helps heroin addicts control their cravings and link to criminal activity. Methadone-maintained heroin addicts are assigned a daily dosage based on their previous use of heroin and the time since the initial detox period (Shi et al., 2007, p. 141). The methadone then offers stabilization for the user and allows them to function properly. Methadone programs are regulated through the federal and state governments and methadone can only be administered through various government organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration (Merrill, 2002, p. 362). Methadone treatment is the most successful method of heroin addiction treatment and retains patients more than any other method of treatment (Merrill, 2002, p. 362). There are also therapeutic treatments such as psychologic therapy and psychologist intervention.
In addition to the currently used models for addiction treatment, there are other proposed theories as to cures for the disease. These theories have not yet been implemented in to society as a whole but they have been developed and succeeded in a lab environment. One of these treatments is vaccination. These vaccines are developed to inject antibodies within the bloodstream of the patient that target specific drugs, preventing the entry of these substances into the patient’s brain (Kantak, 2003, p. 341). The reduction of the drug in the brain would allow for the patient to begin to feel less dependency toward the drug of choice and allow for a long-term recovery process. When tested in monkeys, the vaccine for heroin was found to cause an increase in the amount of heroin needed for the monkey to become re-addicted; the monkey did not desire to do heroin after receiving vaccine treatment unless tempted by a copious amount of it (Kantak, 2003, p. 341). However, the drawback to this treatment is that the vaccines are designed to target one specific drug, and therefore do not protect the user from desiring a different drug instead. Therefore, these vaccines are still in testing stages and have not been implemented on human subjects at this time.
When a drug addict decides to make the decision to get help and enter rehab or a rehabilitative program, there are some risks involved. Regardless of the type of program the heroin addict has chosen to participate in, there is an initial period of detox, where they go through a cold-turkey style quitting process that drains their body of any traces of the drug. Withdrawal is a common side effect of this detox period and can cause damage if not handled properly. Withdrawal begins within the first few days of quitting one’s drug of choice and remains for the first five to six months of recovery (Shi et al., 2007, p. 143). In addition, different drugs have different withdrawal symptoms. Heroin users tend to experience cravings, negative moods, and inability to distinguish reality (Shi et al., 2007, p. 141). Other withdrawal symptoms include loneliness, disinterest in daily activities, insomnia, panic, loss of appetite, muscular pain, and irritability (Shi et al., 2007, p. 142).
With any drug treatment, recovery time and success rate are dependent on the individual and their own personal history and experience with the drug. The heroin user must desire to change and have the dedication or motivation to do so. Without their own personal determination the program is not effective. Since heroin is one of the most addictive drugs there are, the success rates are lower than many other substances. In the past 40 years, 95 percent of heroin users failed at quitting and relapsed (Cooper, 1972, p. 55). This number has increased in more recent years with the development of new rehabilitation programs as well as new technologies that target specific types of drug abuse. Programs that rely on detoxification alone have high relapse rates, as the withdrawal symptoms can be overwhelming on their own (Merrill, 2002, p. 361). Many people believe that they cannot survive the harsh effects of detoxing and this period of time within the recovery process has the highest percentage of failure. People who complete this step and move on are more likely to complete treatment without relapsing later on. Methadone treatments are highly effective and those who complete the treatment program have a high success rate, while 80 percent of people who cancel methadone treatment relapse within one year (Merrill, 2002, p. 361). The methadone program is designed as a long-term process dedicated to the decrease of drug use on a gradual scale. Upon completion, the patients are likely to be cured as the process is longer and they have therefore managed to remain in treatment for a lengthy period of time.
Heroin is a dangerous drug that can have fatal consequences. It is a powerfully addictive substance that has killed many people in the course of its existence. People become extremely dependent on the feelings of euphoria that heroin gives them and develop neurological disorders due to the mind-altering properties of the substance. Heroin can cause serious changes to the pathways of the brain, altering the chemical balance of the body and changing everything from perceptions of reality to feelings of pain. There are many options for someone who has made the decision to recover from their addiction, in the form of rehab centers, methadone clinics, and detoxification programs. These programs are very hard and require dedication and time, but if done properly, can potentially be life-saving for the heroin user.
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