Heroin in America

NPR Series Examines Growing Drug Abuse Problem

Listen: Part 2: Families Fight Back

Listen: Part 3: From Patient to Addict

Listen: Part 4: Life with Methadone

Listen: Part 5: New Treatments

Drug syringes

In the '70s, a bag of heroin -- enough to get a user high once -- cost $30 and was about 28-percent pure. Today, it's 80 percent to 90 percent pure, which makes it powerfully addictive, and it sells for $4 a bag -- cheaper than a six-pack of beer. © Andrew Brookes/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption © Andrew Brookes/Corbis
Karen McDonald

Karen McDonald, 48, is a hotel worker from South Boston. Her son got hooked on heroin five years ago, when he was a teenager. McDonald is one of 10 mothers of addicted children who formed the South Boston Family Resource Center. Chris Arnold, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Arnold, NPR

Cheap and very pure heroin is creating a growing addiction crisis across America. Heroin — much of it from Colombia — is replacing crack cocaine as the drug of choice, particularly among the young. In Massachusetts, for example, more than 4 percent of high school boys report having used heroin.

Today's epidemic is different than the one that infected many urban communities in the 1970s. Heroin is pure enough to snort these days, and younger people are getting into it. In the Boston area, the number of 18 and 19 year olds seeking emergency-room treatment related to heroin use doubled between 2000 and 2002. In a special five-part series, Morning Edition looks at the growing heroin epidemic.

A New Generation of Users: In the 1970s, the average heroin user was 28 to 30 years old and an urban dweller. Today, the average addict is a white, middle-class teenager. NPR's Anthony Brooks reports on the new generation of users — and the more addictive drug they're hooked on.

Fighting Back: Last year, the state of Massachusetts saw some 36,000 admissions into heroin treatment programs. In Boston, things have gotten so bad that a group of everyday people decided to take matters into their own hands by forming the South Boston Family Resource Center. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

From Patient to Addict: Many addicts trace their problem back to work-related injuries. They got hooked on painkillers they received from their doctors, and turned to heroin when they couldn't get those prescriptions renewed. Susan Chisholm reports.

Life with Methadone: North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann profiles two friends in northern New York who drive long distances to receive methadone treatment. Because methadone clinics are rare, especially in rural areas, many recovering heroin addicts are forced to commute hours each day just to get their medicine.

Treatment Options: NPR's Patricia Neighmond reports on a new treatment for heroin addiction. Unlike the traditional approach of painful detox, the regimen uses prescription drugs and can be obtained in participating doctors' offices. Health officials are hoping the therapy will be particularly useful for young users, before their addiction causes bigger problems.

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