Increased use of heroin as an initiating opioid of abuse

Theodore J. Cicero, Matthew S. Ellis, Zachary A. Kasper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

85 Scopus citations


Introduction Given the relatively recent growth in access to heroin and a more permissive atmosphere surrounding its use, we hypothesized that an increasing number of persons with limited experience and tolerance to opioids would experiment with heroin as their first opioid rather than more common prescription opioid analgesics. Methods Individuals entering substance abuse treatment for an opioid use disorder in the period 2010–2016 (N = 5885) were asked about the specific opioid they first regularly used to get high. To limit long-term recall and survival bias, analyses was restricted to opioid initiation that occurred in the past ten years (2005–2015). Results In 2005, only 8.7% of opioid initiators started with heroin, but this sharply increased to 33.3% (p < 0.001) in 2015, with no evidence of stabilization. The use of commonly prescribed opioids, oxycodone and hydrocodone, dropped from 42.4% and 42.3% of opioid initiators, respectively, to 24.1% and 27.8% in 2015, such that heroin as an initiating opioid was now more frequently endorsed than prescription opioid analgesics. Conclusions Our data document that, as the most commonly prescribed opioids – hydrocodone and oxycodone – became less accessible due to supply-side interventions, the use of heroin as an initiating opioid has grown at an alarming rate. Given that opioid novices have limited tolerance to opioids, a slight imprecision in dosing inherent in heroin use is likely to be an important factor contributing to the growth in heroin-related over dose fatalities in recent years.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)63-66
Number of pages4
JournalAddictive Behaviors
StatePublished - Nov 2017


  • Heroin
  • Heroin overdose
  • Opioid abuse
  • Opioid initiation
  • Prescription opioid abuse


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