Prescription opiods are a gateway to heroin use in O.C.

By Dr. Steven Ey

Sometimes it begins legitimately. Pain from an injury or a surgery leads to a prescription for Vicodin, Oxycontin or Percocet.

But when the pills run out, too often people find they are hooked on a highly addictive drug. That's when they turn to other opiates, especially heroin.

This has led to a "normalization" of heroin that has had disastrous consequences. Heroin usage and addiction is on the rise in the U.S. in ways that no one could have imagined a few decades ago.

A drug that was once deemed unseemly and unglamorous is now the party drug of choice for a generation of well-heeled teenagers and people in all income brackets.

Rock-bottom prices are one reason for the drug's surge in prevalence: Kids accustomed to getting high on prescription drugs find heroin is a much cheaper alternative. In Orange County, the number of ninth-graders who admit trying heroin doubled between 2006 and 2012, according to the Orange County Register.

In most cases, the teens start with prescription pain pills and move on to smoke or inject heroin, often with fatal consequences. The county coroner's office reported that 70% of all overdose deaths from 2011 to 2013 involved opioids, with more than half caused by prescription drugs, 17% by heroin, and the remainder by some combination of two opioids or an opioid and alcohol. More than 265 deaths in the county were attributed to a combination of prescription pills and heroin in 2012 alone.

In other words, young kids with promising futures are ending up as statistics.

In an effort to stem the rise of heroin deaths, Orange County sheriff's deputies soon will carry the antidote naloxone to revive people who have overdosed. This will help keep the kids from dying, but it won't prevent them from abusing — or overdosing — again.

Then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last year called rising overdose deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers an "urgent public health crisis." It is into this heartbreaking crisis, this battle, that addiction specialists like me wade every day.

The work would be overwhelming, if it weren't for the fact that it's in the arena of rehabilitation that we actually see results.

With proper intervention, counseling and medical attention, young people don't have to hand over their futures to drugs. They don't have to spiral out of control. And they don't have to die.

Last year, at Hoag alone, we helped hundreds of people with prescription drug and/or heroin addiction get on the road to recovery. The journey can be a long one, but it's marked with success and promise and hope. Something that drug addiction strips from those who are in its clutches.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest hurdles is denial among parents. There is a stigma to heroin use that makes asking for and receiving help much more difficult than for other drugs.

I urge teens and their families to stop feeling ashamed of drug addiction. Shame isn't curative. What these kids need is an environment where their addiction is treated as the disease of the brain that it is.

Evidence-based medical interventions can lead people to sobriety. And as with any disease treatment, the earlier we begin those interventions, the better the outcome.

Yes, heroin usage is rampant, prescription abuse is prevalent, and overdose deaths are on the rise. But there is help. And there is hope.

It is my hope that those who need it are brave enough to ask.

Dr. Steven Ey is medical director at the Hoag Addiction Treatment Center in Newport Beach.