No, pharmacies aren’t dealing out heroin. But until 2010, heroin’s chemical cousin was readily available across the country. This is the little-known story of the prescription drug OxyContin and how it’s linked to the greatest opioid epidemic America’s ever seen.

435,000 people. That’s how many individuals reported using heroin in the last month, according to a 2014 study. In recent years, heroin overdose deaths have been increasing drastically. Between 2001 and 2014, the total number of deaths increased six-fold.

Watch the video below and learn what’s driving the surge in the US.

But why this sudden rise? People are quick to point to the drug war, but its source is somewhere far more sinister: Your local pharmacy.

No, pharmacies aren’t dealing out heroin. But until 2010, heroin’s chemical cousin was readily available across the country. This is the little-known story of the prescription drug OxyContin and how it’s linked to the greatest opioid epidemic America’s every seen.

The History of Heroin

Opium has been around for centuries, starting sometime around 3400 B.C. The Sumerians called it the “joy plant.” In the early 1800s, however, the principal ingredient in the opium poppy was extracted to create an even more powerful drug. Called “morphine” after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, the drug was mass-produced as a painkiller as well as a solution to opium addiction. To this day, morphine is still regarded as one of the most effective pain relievers.

In 1874, though, a British chemist named C.R. Adler Wright found a new compound of morphine that provided even greater pain relief and was thought to be non-addictive. A few years later, the drug was put on the market by Bayer under the name of “heroin.” The brand name came from the heroic feeling users experienced when testing the drug. Advertising campaigns highlighted its non-habit forming nature, and the drug was endorsed as a cough suppressant for adults and children.

At that time, no one realized the massive problems it would later cause.

How big pharma is linked to the opioid epidemic

After the U.S. government discovered heroin was addictive, it outlawed it in 1914. However, in 1995, the Food and Drug Administration approved a little pill called OxyContin. It manufacturer was a Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company called Purdue Pharma. While OxyContin is almost molecularly identical to heroin, Purdue claimed that it would be less addictive because the pill was designed for controlled release. In other words, it would break down slowly after being swallowed, never releasing enough at a time to give the same high as heroin.

OxyContin dominates the market

During the first year on the market, OxyContin made $45 million in sales for its manufacturer. By 2001, that number rose to over $1 billion annually.

Purdue Pharma went to all lengths to market and distribute their drug.

They specifically targeted physicians who did not necessarily have adequate training in pain management, encouraging them to prescribe it as a first choice even when the patients did not need such a strong drug.

But not all of this went unnoticed. In 2000, it became clear that OxyContin could easily be abused.

Chewing the tablet, snorting the powder, or forming a liquid for injection produced as potent a high as heroin could.

With doctors regularly giving OxyContin prescriptions with little oversight, it quickly became a popular street drug.

Purdue Pharma is convicted

In 2007, Purdue Pharma pled guilty to misleading regulators, doctors, and patients about the drug’s addictive qualities and abuse potential. The company paid $600 million in fines, one of the most notable settlements in U.S. history for a pharmaceutical company.

The original OxyContin was taken off the market, and in 2010 a reformulated version was released. By this time, OxyContin made up 30 percent of the painkiller market. It was the most frequently prescribed brand-name narcotic medication for moderate-to-severe pain in the U.S. The new OxyContin was created to be difficult to crush or dissolve, and it forms into a gel that makes it hard to inject. While still addictive, these changes to the drug have decreased OxyContin abuse.

OxyContin’s aftermath

But the story doesn’t stop there. The bad guy was caught and forced to pay their dues, but what about all of the people still living with opiate addictions?

While the majority of people who used OxyContin never had a problem, some did. And when OxyContin was reformulated, many of the people addicted switched to heroin.

Prescription painkillers are the number one method of forming an addiction that leads to heroin use. Four out of five first-time heroin users previously used prescription pain relievers recreationally.

Heroin is a cheaper alternative than the prescription drugs, but on top of addiction, heroin can be a particularly dangerous substance. “In the case of heroin,” said Nora D. Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “this danger is compounded by the lack of control over the purity of the drug inject and its possible contamination with other drugs.”

According to the CDC, the U.S. consumes 75% of the world’s prescription drugs.

Even if the patient does not develop an addiction, his or her family and friends may end up with the pills. When it comes to prescription drug abuse, 54.2% of the pills are not directly attained from a doctor, but from a friend or relative.

Today’s heroin epidemic is directly linked to one of the biggest pharmaceutical scandals in history. And real people are dealing with the consequences. The federal government is providing education and resources to healthcare providers so they can make informed decisions when prescribing pain medications. But in the meantime, it falls to treatment centers to help these individuals get clean and reclaim their life.

What most don’t know about addiction

You don’t have to face this alone. People are going to tell you that it’s your problem, that you have to face it alone. But watch this video:

It took a lot of systems and a lot of people to get you addicted. It’s going to take another team of people to help you recover. At The Recovery Village, we help people like you every day. From day one of detox through the day you start your new sober life, we’ll be by your side. Learn about our treatment programs, and when you’re ready, give us a call today. We’d love to answer any questions you have.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.