AP Thinks Heroin's Got a Brand New Bag, Misses Story

Big news! Heroin is now more pure and deadly than ever--and comes in $10 bags! According to an investigation by the AP, today's heroin dealers are taking their cue from the crack dealers of the "1970's" and making their product cheaper and higher quality in order to attract new customers.

The problem here is that the "dime" bag of heroin has been a market staple since at least the 1970's -- when, contrary to the AP story, crack was not on the market. Even cheaper heroin doses were available before that, going back to William Burroughs in the 1950's, though, to be fair, these do not take inflation into account.

Indeed, $10 bags were the most common unit on the street when I was using in the mid-1980's, in crack's heyday. And as Jack Shafer pointed out in Slate way back in 1996, tales of "new, purer" heroin have been with us for decades.

This kind of shallow reporting is why the media loses credibility -- a simple Google search or call to an academic expert on drugs or even a conversation with a long-time addict would reveal that $10 bags are not news.

And that's not the only problem with this story. It also claims that "heroin metabolizes in the body so quickly that medical examiners often cannot pinpoint the drug as a cause of death," which would be news to those who test positive for it in their urine many hours after using. It's true that "heroin overdoses" are usually more accurately defined as "multiple drug overdoses," so determining the role of heroin in the death is hard -- but that's not because heroin is metabolized instantly.

Indeed, the story's claims of "instant" overdoses where the addict doesn't have time to even remove the needle from their arm are themselves problematic. While synthetic opioids like fentanyl may produce rapid death -- and fentanyl is sometimes sold as heroin -- heroin overdoses more typically take hours because the drug kills by slowly stopping breathing.

That's where the AP could have found a real story -- one that might actually help save lives. There is an antidote that can reverse opioid overdoses, which is safe and effective and has been quietly working miracles around the country in cities where health activists and city health departments have been distributing it to drug users, usually through needle exchange programs.

It's called naloxone -- and I've written about it previously here and here.

Unfortunately, needle-exchanged-based programs can't reach new users who are at highest risk for overdose -- but there is a way to get this antidote into their hands when it is needed and curb the deadly toll of overdose death. Naloxone should be made available over-the-counter and it should be placed in every first aid kit.

That way, even if parents don't know their children are using or if a new user overdoses with friends, the antidote is much more likely to be nearby. The story of a drug policy that hasn't attempted to save lives in this cheap, effective manner is one that hasn't been told hundreds of times -- and it's much fresher than the $10 bag.