The drug problem in California is about more than just abuse among a certain social strata: the opioid epidemic and its twin epidemic of heroin abuse is devastating a generation of young adults.
Drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed among teens and young adults in the United States, with rates tripling or quadrupling in one out of every three states, according to a 2013 report.
Nationwide, the drug overdose death rate has more than doubled during the past decade among people aged 12 to 25.
A New York Times analysis of death certificates found that “drug overdoses are driving up the death rate of young white adults in the United States to levels not seen since the end of the AIDS epidemic more than two decades ago – a turn of fortune that stands in sharp contrast for young blacks.”
The rising death rate for these young white adults, ages 25-34, make them the first generation since the Vietnam War years of the mid-1960s to experience higher death rates in early adulthood than the generation that preceded it.
These deaths are largely due to the nation’s epidemic of prescription drug abuse, and a subsequent rise in heroin use said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health, a non-profit health advocacy group.
“These twin epidemics have contributed to the recent tragic rise in overdose deaths,” Levi said.
The death toll from drug overdose is soaring in specific pockets of the nation: quadrupling in five states, more than tripling in 12 states, and more than doubling in 18 states. The latter includes California, where this trend has increased steadily statewide and in Los Angeles and Orange counties over the past five years. The drug problem in Northern California was compounded with a series of overdose deaths when a powerful synthetic drug was disguised and illegally sold as a prescription painkiller in Sacramento County, resulting in 22 overdoses in less than a week.
Overall, emergency department visits among heroin users of all ages increased, but the sharpest was among the state’s young adults. About 1,500 emergency department visits by California’s millennials poisoned by heroin were logged in 2015 compared with fewer than 1,000 in 2012. The drug problem in Northern CA is compounded by its comprising part of the heroin and meth highway from Mexico to Canada and the rest of the United States.
Emergency responders, those who work in recovery programs, and parents of children addicted to heroin say the figures are unsurprising given the increase in prescription painkiller abuse that likely has led more young people to use heroin.
“One of the unintended consequences of this prescription drug epidemic has been the increase in heroin addiction and overdoses, in part due to the transition from prescription opioids to less expensive heroin street drugs,” according to state health officials. By some estimates, one pill of oxycodone can cost $80 on the street. A bag of heroin costs $5.
Jody Waxman saw it firsthand. Her son was 23 when she realized he was addicted to heroin.
“He went to the emergency department a number of times,” said the San Fernando Valley woman. “He once almost died on my living room floor. He had gotten a hold of heroin laced with other drugs. It was very bad.”
Waxman agreed that because prescription drugs are more difficult to get, more people are turning to heroin. Her son is now 26, sober and engaged, and talks about his past openly. But she said it takes ongoing dialogue among parents and their children to raise awareness about addiction with the help of drug addiction hotlines.