Heroin, Painkillers & Opiates: The Lethal Flood


By Terry Gotham

For the past couple of weeks, a dear friend of mine has gotten alert after alert from high school friends. The pace of overdose deaths in the town she grew up in has quickened considerably. When four people from your high school class don’t make it to the first day of Spring, it’s a problem you can’t ignore anymore. I wish that her experience was isolated, but it is occurring all over the country. Richmond had almost 30 heroin ODs in a week. This will be related to Burning Man later in the post, but I couldn’t ignore this any longer. We as party people, Burners and Americans, are dying, very slowly, and it doesn’t have to be this way. The stuff may flood in from Mexico, but blaming it solely on the gangs & dealers alone would miss the true, complex problem America is facing when it comes to opiate use. 

The first & clearest culprits continue to be the diabolical pill mills, the “doctors” that staff them, and the pharmaceutical companies that support them, that flooded suburbia & rural areas with medical grade junk. Most Americans wouldn’t dare do heroin, but that’s never how it starts. Oxycontin, Vicodin & Percocet have become as easy to find as cannabis, thanks in no small part to their wild over-prescription. To put the volume of pain pills currently prescribed in perspective, 12 states had more opioid prescriptions than people in 2012: Alabama, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Indiana, Michigan, South Carolina & Ohio. But it’s not just that.

40 years ago, Vietnam Veterans brought their opium/heroin smoking habits home, which quickly transfigured into the wave of drug use, homelessness & violence that transfixed the nation in the late 70’s & 80’s, especially once the speedball (coke + heroin in the same syringe) was invented. While the speedball is less popular these days, veterans have brought their heroin smoking habits back from Afghanistan. This progresses from the joints filled with opium in Afghanistan, to sniffing the stuff when they return home.

Both groups have segments of users who progress and eventually make the jump. America has a long relationship with these drugs, as detailed by The Guardian, but it’s definitely taken a turn for the worse. Because the proliferation of opiates is so wide-spread, the number of people who progress towards injection heroin spikes. Eventually, pill users switch to heroin because it’s so much cheaper. While not everyone moves from sniffing/smoking heroin to IV usage of course, a whole lot more do.

DARE & other idiotic programs can’t message on the dangers correctly, lumping in heroin & opiates with harmless substances like cannabis. This scheduling not only made a travesty of the entire idea of protecting the population from dangerous drugs, but also ensures teens don’t believe the messaging they’re receiving at all. Most people don’t even know cannabis is in the same legal group as heroin, potentially one of the reasons it doesn’t stop people from trying it. There are a lot of scary facts out there that we could use to educate the population when it came to the dangers of a progressive opiate habit, but they are largely ignored.

We need to be honest about the adulteration of street heroin, methadone & morphine with all manner of dangerous chemicals and stop blaming users. The flood of pharmaceuticals on the streets causes two huge problems. First, because surgical anesthetic can be wildly more potent than even the most finely processed heroin, it’s alarmingly easier to OD, especially when you don’t have a regular/trusted source. Secondly, when weapons grade pain killers are introduced into the drug supply, the secondary effects of those substance start hitting the population of users in any given city that are doing this stuff. NYC, Phillip Seymour Hoffman didn’t die of heroin per se, he died because his heroin was spiked with Fentanyl, a surgical-grade painkiller that also depresses lung function. He was found dead because his lungs stopped working, not because the heroin was “too powerful.” For more info, check out a previous write-up of mine on the subject. In a recent study out of British Columbia, 73% of people who tested positive for the drug stated they’d only used “heroin” in the past 3 days. When 3/4 of your heroin-using population is getting an adulterant that anesthesiologists use for the express purpose of depressed lung function, that’s a problem.

Switching gears a bit, to anyone who is thinking of attending Burning Man who has a problem with opiates, make sure to do one thing. Either plan to be clean from the stuff by attempting to quit at least 100 days before you plan on hitting the playa, or wait until after it’s over, and plan to keep your habit going. This isn’t a judgement call or wag of the finger. This is a plea for the sanity & the sleep of your campmates. Your friends should not have to deal with a scene from trainspotting while they’re in the middle of their favorite time of year. Leave it at home, or take care of it. I’d imagine they probably don’t care as long as you don’t show up to your work shift strung the fuck out. But, the same goes for the hippie who will get shit for showing up to build the geodesic dome on mushrooms. If you’re a bit nervous about withdrawal, that’s to be expected. Here’s some information on the symptoms you can expect, even a special supplement for the small group of users who get restless leg syndrome with their withdrawal.

Additionally, if you’ve never been to Tangiers or smoked heroin in Phoenix, you might not be aware just how lame/woozy people feel when either high or dope sick. I’ve asked a number of users & medical professionals, and the answer is pretty consistent. Being dehydrated & strung out fucking sucks. There are dozens of reports on drug forums all over the internet of people feeling nauseous or worse just taking a walk out in the heat after getting their fix. The idea of maintaining a habit on playa was consistently horrifying to everyone I mentioned the idea to.

Is it all doom & gloom? Not exactly. Naloxone can reverse an OD if delivered in a timely fashion, and after a bunch of stupid pearl clutching resistance, emergency response teams and local pharmacies across the country are being trained in its use & starting to offer it over the counter. This is happening at the same time the CDC released new prescribing guidelines for the stuff. While vociferously fought by big pharma, the idea that you should start with ibuprofen & not provide 30 day supplies for a minor sprain, has in fact translated from suggestion to policy guideline. Today, new FDA warnings were announced for them. The first safe injection sites are starting to be proposed in the USA, building on a very successful system deployed in Switzerland, Germany & the Netherlands.

If you’re heading to the playa with people who mess with opiates, Bring Naloxone. Know how to administer the nasal spray, and of course, test your goddamn junk! This is a judgment free zone, so, it’s not about guilting or shaming someone who had an OD. It’s about preventing it as it’s happening & figuring out how to make sure another one doesn’t happen again, after the danger has passed. If you’re having trouble controlling your use, don’t joke, get help. It doesn’t make you weak, it shows just how strong you can be. If there’s one thing that I’ve seen Burners do, it’s help people when they’re at the bottom. Burner friends of mine on both coasts have given of themselves, time/money/effort-wise, to pull people out of some of the worst places I’ve seen anyone. Be honest with yourself, and all you caregivers, I hope you got your Golden Ticket today.

16 comments on “Heroin, Painkillers & Opiates: The Lethal Flood

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  6. Heroin is a big story in the US because suburban high school cheerleaders are overdosing on it now. Before it was just inner city junkies and the occasional celebrity. But now we care because think of the children!

    Once you start injecting heroin you’ve basically signed a letter to society that says, ‘I understood the risks, but I did it anyway. Don’t cry for me, because if I die I probably did it on purpose. If it was an accident, well, that’s Darwinism for you.’

  7. Absolutely agree. Wish I coulddo something lost a lot of people due to drugs and its hold .its really sad how weak people are ..I myself am on painkillers its that or not walk because of insurance doesn’t pay for hip and knee surgery .there is another side to this .real pain is sad also because these people are abusing something that if used correctly is a godsend for some .and a living hell for others ..

    • Ah this shit just makes me angry for not spending even more time on the Bernie Sanders campaign – all of that crazy behavior due to evil insurance, which often ends up being more expensive for the taxpayer, is just avoided in any developed country with a Medicare for all system that I know of…

  8. Great article Terry. The link between war and opium goes much longer and deeper than Vietnam and Afghanistan. Opium was synthesized into morphine; morphine redefined warfare in the American Civil War with the advent of mobile field hospitals. The war that supposedly was to defeat slavery created slaves of its own. The war was over but their opiate addiction remained. Also Opium War I & II that the British East India Company waged against China in the same period.

    If I get a chance I will write an article about that, or perhaps someone else may feel inspired.

  9. Also worth keeping in mind – naloxone can reverse an OD, but it may precipitate withdrawal if used in high enough doses. There is always a risk of vomiting and aspiration, which can be fatal. Also, repeated doses may be required to maintain consciousness. Narcan isn’t a hard drug to use safely, but you do need some consideration that its not just magic.

  10. It’s getting a lot harder these days to find good heroin. You really have to know what you’re doing and who you’re buying from I always say it’s better to smoke it. If you start with needles, it’s bad news. I used to snort it mixed with coke and ecstasy, I forget what that’s called, but be prepared to be up all night like acid.

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