Heroin Deaths Rise As Crackdown On Prescription Drug Abuse Succeeds

As efforts to crack down on the abuse of prescription drugs have worked, a new problem has emerged, with addicts who can no longer get their fix by popping pills turning to the old-fashioned street drug heroin, health and law enforcement officials say.

The trend shows up in local arrests, drug seizures, and overdose deaths. Drug dealers are finding new markets in the suburbs, where teenagers once got their stash from local drugstores or their parents’ medicine cabinets, some experts say.

“The kids who got addicted to prescription pills are flipping to heroin, and, as a result, these kids are dropping like flies,” said Mike Gimbel, a longtime drug counselor in Baltimore County who now works at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center.

The number of statewide deaths from heroin overdoses increased 41 percent in the first seven months of this year compared with 2011, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said Friday. There were 205 heroin-related overdose deaths in the first seven months of 2012, compared with 145 during the same period the year before.

Overdose deaths related to prescription opioids like oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone declined by 15 percent, from 208 to 177 in the same periods. Overall drug overdose deaths rose 6 percent.

A collective effort in recent years by federal, state and local governments, law enforcement agencies and medical communities to control an epidemic of prescription drug abuse has slashed the number of prescriptions being issued for commonly abused pills.

Law enforcement aggressively pursued drug mills and clinics selling drugs illegally. A Maryland law passed in 2011 called for the creation of a monitoring system that will require pharmacies to log filled prescriptions in a database. Doctors and other prescribers will have access to the database, which Health Secretary Joshua M. Sharfstein said will be up and running by the end of 2013.