Chasing the dragon is a really catchy name for a devastating reality. The term originated with opium and heroin users. It refers to the way addicts gradually build up tolerance to these drugs, and need more to feel high.

Eventually, many can’t even get that, but they still crave the illicit narcotics to stave off withdrawals. Today, heroin is the most widely used illegal opioid, and its use is increasing, especially among young people. That rise is linked to the proliferation of a class of legal opioid drugs developed for pain relief. Hydrocodone, Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, morphine and codeine are the stars in an array of legal prescription opioids.

And they’re probably coming to a home near you soon — if they aren’t there already. Many adults who become addicted to pain pills get started with initially beneficial prescriptions. Some children begin by stealing pills from their parents’ medicine cabinets. Others buy them at school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014, more than 28,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses – almost as many as in car accidents. Prescription drugs caused the majority of those deaths, but as dependence on pain relievers has soared, and law enforcement has cracked down on their abuse, heroin addiction has risen because it’s easier and cheaper to obtain.

When the FBI held a community screening of a documentary called “Chasing The Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict” in San Antonio in September, school administrators, health officials, law enforcement and community leaders came together to stress how critical the problem is.

“We’re beginning to see teenagers using IV heroin,” Dr. Robert Jimenez, chief medical officer for Bexar County’s The Center for Health Care Services, told me.

“Heroin from Mexico is now the highest quality, and it’s being brought in across the border by the ton,” Jimenez added. Because a lot of the heroin is more pure, it is less likely to be diluted with fentanyl or other substances, which increase overdose risk, he said. However, it takes less to get high, so it tends to be cheaper.

“You can buy it all over San Antonio,” he said. “Kids can buy it at school from each other. They snort it or chew it or put it in candy or wafers – snorting is very popular with kids. They may handle it for a while, but sadly, eventually they’re going to start shooting it, and they’re going to get in trouble, often with HIV and hepatitis. Right now the largest number of new cases of HIV and hepatitis are coming out of the (78209) area and the North Star Mall area. These are not just poor minorities.”

“This problem affects everyone,” Police Chief William McManus said at the “Chasing the Dragon” symposium, “and we can’t arrest it away.”

The CHCS has a wide range of prevention and treatment options, including a methadone program with about 1,000 enrollees, detoxification and residential treatment. University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and University of Texas at San Antonio researchers are among those working to find alternative approaches to treating pain, and new therapies for preventing or treating addiction. Many school districts target at-risk kids, and educate students and families about symptoms and solutions.

Changing the status quo is going to take a lot more informed, enlightened community efforts. If we don’t unite to confront this dragon, who knows how monstrously high the toll will rise?


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