- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2018

The number of people taking up heroin for the first time dropped by more than half in 2017 compared to the prior year, in a sign that prevention efforts may be taking hold, according to a government survey released Friday.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health says 81,000 people started using the drug last year, compared to 170,000 new users in 2016.

Officials said the finding is important because heroin is increasingly laced with fentanyl and other synthetic opioids that are fueling the U.S. overdose crisis.

About 11.4 million people misused any form of opioid in 2017 compared to 12.7 million the prior year, officials said, pointing to a noticeable drop in prescription hydrocodone abuse.

Despite the drop in new heroin users, the number of people who became addicted to the drug in 2017 ticked up slightly.

On the positive side, nearly 56 percent of heroin abusers sought treatment in 2017, up from 37.5 percent the prior year — a stat that coincides with the flow of billions in federal grant funding to the states to expand services.

Federal officials said they’re heartened by the shift, as Congress reins in the supply of addictive pain pills and President Trump treats the opioid epidemic as a public health emergency. Yet they acknowledged that drug abuse is rampant and increasingly deadly, as the drug supply becomes more potent.

“The message is beginning to get through to them. But as this data shows, there’s still a lot to do,” said James Carroll, acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

A record 72,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2017, a 10-percent increase from 2016, largely due to an influx of deadly fentanyl that’s cut with heroin.

The survey says while the number of heroin users roughly doubled since 15 years ago, there were seven times as many heroin deaths in 2017.

“What this tells us is that we have a heroin on the street that is far more toxic and dangerous than it was in 2002,” said Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant HHS secretary for mental health and substance use.

The Senate is scheduled to vote on a sweeping opioids package late Monday that, among other things, will force the U.S. Postal Service to demand advanced electronic data on foreign packages, so customs agents can target shipments of deadly fentanyl.

The annual survey on drug use and mental health is compiled from interviews with about 67,500 people in households, college dorms, homeless shelters and military bases to get a snapshot of drug use in America.

Marijuana continues to be the most widely used illicit substance, with 15 percent of Americans over age 12 — or 41 million people — reporting use.

All age groups showed an increase in marijuana use, and use among women jumped from 17.5 percent in 2016 to 19.2 percent in 2017.

Marijuana is followed by psychoactive drugs like prescription opioids and sedatives (18 million), cocaine (6 million), and then hallucinogens, inhalants, methamphetamines and then heroin, which was used by 886,000 Americans.

“Use of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine are all up,” Mr. Carroll said. “So we aren’t just in an opioids crisis. It’s an addiction crisis.”

Mr. Carroll just returned from Colombia, where he discussed the rising availability of cocaine with President Ivan Duque Martinez and efforts to slash South American production.

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