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For years, parents have assumed that raising their children in suburban or rural areas will prevent or at least limit their children’s exposure to hard drugs so prevalent in metropolitan areas or larger cities.

In fact, for many years that seemed to be the case with smaller towns having much lower rates of substance abuse and addiction. But with transportation across larger distances becoming more efficient and less expensive, rural and suburban-dwellers have been able to turn to importing drugs from the populated cities from which most hard drugs originate. The more efficient transportation also has allowed those in rural or suburban areas the ability to begin producing drugs such as crystal meth themselves. Over time, less-populated areas have seen a steady increase in the availability and, consequently, the abuse of drugs, which is reflected in significantly higher rates of individuals seeking treatment for addiction in rural and suburban towns.

Shift in demographics

According to an NBC News report, an analysis done by the journal JAMA Psychiatry confirms there has been a major shift in the demographics of heroin use in the United States. The typical heroin user in the 1960s was an inner-city teenager, likely as not a minority, whose habit started with heroin.

“Our typical image of a heroin user is a ‘dirty junkie,’” said lead study author Theodore J. Cicero, a professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “This is not the current heroin user.”

Cicero and his colleagues analyzed data from an ongoing study that included nearly 2,800 heroin addicts entering substance abuse treatment in centers across the United States. In addition, they conducted intensive interviews with 54 addicts about their experiences and motivations related to using heroin.

In the 1960s, nearly 83 percent of users were boys and men, with a median age of 16.5, who lived in urban areas and started using heroin as their first opiate, the study found.
Before the 1980s, whites and other races were equally represented. But in the last decade, nearly 90 percent of new heroin users were white. New users now are typically older, with a mean age of 23, and they start their addiction with prescription narcotics like OxyContin, only to progress to heroin, which is less expensive and easier to obtain.

Deaths on the rise

Prescription opiates cause 16,600 deaths a year, according to federal figures. That compares to about 3,000 deaths a year from heroin. But as the U.S. government said last March, heroin overdose deaths climbed by 45 percent between 2006 and 2010, flagging what he called “an urgent and growing public health crisis.”

Suburbs have grown and diversified in the last few decades, but tend to be populated with more affluent and highly educated residents than are found in urban areas. The abuse of alcohol among suburban adults is very high, as is marijuana use and stimulant use in these communities. However, the group that is primarily responsible for the explosion of serious drug use in suburbia is teenagers.

Suburban teenagers, surprisingly, have a much higher rate of drug abuse than do their urban contemporaries. The ease of access to prescription painkillers or common ADD/ADHD medication, such as Ritalin, is a major component in the development of young drug users. It is estimated more than 1.9 million suburban youths between the ages of 12 and 19 abuse prescription medications. The abuse of prescription opioid painkillers has led to an unprecedented rise of heroin use in suburban areas. Heroin satisfies the intense cravings experienced by an opiate pain pill addict, but at a much cheaper price. About 90 percent of these underage drug users are white, affluent and insulated from the poverty often associated with heroin addiction.

No. 1 healthcare risk

Heroin and prescription opiate overdoses have become the No. 1 healthcare concern in suburbia. Abuse of prescription stimulants, such as Ritalin, are also a huge concern. With about 20 percent of any given school’s population currently taking Ritalin by a doctor’s order, it is readily available and easy to procure for misuse. Often referred to as “the poor man’s cocaine,” students snort crushed pills to achieve a cocaine-like high. Overdose can occur quickly, and is not uncommon among suburban youths.

Fighting back

In March 2014, the United States Department of Justice and the Attorney General Eric Holder vowed to take action against the “urgent public health crisis” of heroin and prescription opiates. Holder claimed that between 2006-2010 there was a 45 percent increase in heroin overdoses. To start, Holder pushed law enforcement agencies to carry the “overdose-reversal drug” Naloxone and urged the public to watch the educational documentary “The Opiate Effect.” Holder also outlined the DEA plan as follows:

Since 2011, DEA has opened more than 4,500 investigations related to heroin. They’re on track to open many more. And as a result of these aggressive enforcement efforts, the amount of heroin seized along America’s southwest border increased by more than 320 percent between 2008 and 2013…enforcement alone won’t solve the problem. That’s why we are enlisting a variety of partners – including doctors, educators, community leaders, and police officials – to increase our support for education, prevention, and treatment.