DEA Says Heroin Use Reaches Epidemic Proportions

The recent death of Oscar winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman brings attention to the rise of heroin use, reminiscent of the 70s and 80s. Houston medical experts say overcoming any addiction involves controlling cravings and compulsions.

The Drug Enforcement Administration says the use of heroin has reached epidemic proportions. Health officials say more than 660,000 Americans used heroin in 2012, nearly double the number from 2007. With Mexican cartels pushing larger amounts into the country, overdoses and emergency room visits have skyrocketed as a result.

Donald is a Houston resident, who was addicted to heroin for nearly 30 years. Because of his disease, he asked that we withhold his last name.

"I was using every day. I thought it was recreational use. And one day I woke up. It was the middle of the summer; I went and got the blankets out of the storage because I was cold. I was shivering. I couldn't eat. I was physically ill as the result of my drug use."

He's been drug-free for 20 years, thanks to help from Career and Recovery Resources, a Houston nonprofit that helps people challenged by barriers that include employment, illiteracy and substance abuse. Officials say many addicts are former prescription drug abusers.

"People who have the disease of addiction, still need to fill that addiction, and so they find themselves on the street buying heroin."

Dr. Michael Sprintz is founder and chief medical officer of the Sprintz Center, The Woodlands based clinic that specializes in treating patients who suffer with chronic pain and or dependency or addiction problems.

"The way that one develops addiction, commonly is they have a genetic pre-disposition, and what that means is that they have a genetic probability for developing this disease. So if both parents were alcoholics or addicts, there's a much higher probability that the children can develop the disease of addiction."

But he says takes a trigger, like stress or physical or emotional pain, to turn substance use into addiction.

"So when I talk about addiction, it's really important to realize that the brain doesn't care, whether its heroin, Jack Daniels, chocolate cake, cocaine, sex, internet gambling. To the brain it makes no difference, the brain gets a burst of Dopamine in this rewards center that says do more, do more, do more."

Dr. Sprintz says the disease of addiction is chronic and progressive, and it usually takes more of the substance in order to experience the same level of high.

"Especially if we're talking about street heroin, where it's really unpredictable. Sometimes people shoot more, and it happened to be a really more pure bag that they bought that day, and that's when you can wind up overdosing and dying."

Initial autopsy results are still pending, but Philip Seymour Hoffman had battled heroin addiction for years.

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Pat Hernandez

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Pat Hernandez is a general assignments reporter who joined the KUHF news staff in February of 2008...