Prescription drug abuse contributing to rise in heroin use in San Diego County, study shows

A new study shows that heroin use has grown in popularity in San Diego County, which historically has had relatively low rates of this substance abuse compared to other parts of the nation.

Over a 10-year period between 2002 and 2012 the percent of adult men booked into jail who tested positive for opiates (heroin, morphine, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and Codeine) jumped from 5 percent to 10 percent, according to the study released today by the San Diego County Association of Governments Criminal Justice Research Division. The rate among women increased from 6 percent to 12 percent.

“There is strong evidence that the recent increase in heroin use is driven in part by the growing abuse of prescription painkillers,” said Cynthia Burke, director of Criminal Justice Research.

From interviews with people in jail, researchers learned that heroin often is used as a substitute for prescription opiates “because it’s relatively cheap and easy to obtain,” noted Burke.

“The drug use trends we see in the jail population are typically a good harbinger of what will happen in the general population,” she said. “Our findings are consistent with other countywide statistics on the rise of heroin seizures, drug treatment admissions, and deaths due to heroin overdose. So it’s critical to monitor and address this issue through a comprehensive strategy.”

For the first time, younger adults booked into jail — those ages 18 to 24 — were more likely to test positive for opiates (14%) in 2012, compared to those ages 25 to 39 (12%) and 40 and older (8%).

Other findings from the study, “2012 Adult Arrestee Drug Use in the San Diego Region,” are also raising concerns:

•The percent of adult arrestees who reported ever trying heroin increased to 26 percent in 2012, from 17 percent in 2002, and the proportion of these individuals who used heroin in the past 30 days also increased, from 26 percent to 42 percent.

•Of those who used heroin in the past, 79 percent reported it was “very easy” or “easy” to get.

•Twenty-seven percent of those who have tried heroin reported that they had used prescription opiates before trying heroin, and 63 percent of these individuals said they started using heroin as a substitute for the prescription opiates, often because of increased availability and more reasonable cost.

•Younger adults ages 18 to 24 were more likely to report having abused a prescription opiate (46 percent), compared to 32 percent of those between the ages of 25 and 39 and 28 percent of those 40 and older.

According to the San Diego County Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force, between 2007 and 2012 the number of seizures of heroin at San Diego County points of entry increased from 111 to 470. The percent of treatment admissions indicating heroin as a primary drug of choice increased from 17 percent to 23 percent, and the number of heroin overdose deaths rose from 57 to 74.

Illicit drug abuse costs the United States $193 billion annually due to lost productivity, health care expenses, and associated crime, according to a study by the National Drug Intelligence Center.

As part of the SANDAG study, 586 men at the Vista and San Diego Central Jails and 293 women at Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility were selected to be interviewed about their drug use history and asked to provide a urine sample. Of these 879 arrestees, 854 completed the interview and also provided a valid urine sample for analysis. Using a random sampling method, researchers approached the study participants within 48 hours of their arrest and booking into jail.

The complete report is at




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