Heroin Deaths Continue to Rise in Arizona

Substance Abuse

In line with the rest of the country, Arizona is seeing a growing use of heroin and abuse of prescription opioids, and it is bringing deadly consequences to our communities.

The use of heroin creates devastating effects on individuals, families and communities. Awareness of the enormity of this problem is crucial if we are to provide meaningful help to those struggling with addiction and to prevent more from going down this dark path.

The scope of the problem

According to the most recently available statistics from the Arizona Department of Health Services, in 2014 the state had 101 deaths from heroin overdose—a 55 percent increase from the previous year at 65 deaths. Pharmaceutical opioid poisoning resulted in 190 deaths and 579 hospital visits during this time. Since 2010, deaths attributed to heroin poisoning have increased 93 percent.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the increase in heroin overdoses can be attributed to two things: widespread exposure and addiction to prescription opioids and an increase in the heroin supply.

For many people, the path to heroin begins with being overprescribed certain pain medications containing opioids such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), morphine and codeine. After prolonged use, dependence and addiction can occur.

Those who have developed a dependence on prescription drugs may then turn to heroin because it offers a stronger high, is easier to get and costs less than prescription medication. According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an estimated 80 percent of heroin users started out abusing prescription drugs.

A nefarious aspect to heroin and prescription opioids is the user’s body will adapt to the drug so that more and more is required to achieve the desired feeling. After a time, many addicts report that they no longer “get high,” but must keep using more just to feel normal. These factors can lead to an overdose. An opioid overdose causes a dramatic slowing in respiration and ultimately heart failure, leading to death.

Public awareness and education

Preventing heroin use and opioid abuse will require greater awareness and education. The public needs to be aware that this is a real epidemic that impacts people in their own communities; it can affect the educated and affluent as well as those with modest means. Here are a few examples of some outreach that is being done to help:

MCAO employees and volunteers spend time out in the community offering curriculum-based, anti-drug presentations for children at several community centers and summer camps throughout the Valley each year.

A great educational resource is a special series produced by the Cronkite School of Journalism in 2015 titled, “Hooked: Tracking Heroin’s Hold on Arizona,” for which it recently received the prestigious Alfred I. DuPont Award. The series delves into the disturbing world of heroin and opioid use, its causes and impacts. County Attorney Bill Montgomery participated in the video documentary.

-Hooked: Tracking heroin’s hold on Arizona: hookedaz.cronkitenewsonline.com/documentary/

Stay tuned for a new documentary on prescription drug addiction produced by the Cronkite School. “HOOKED RX”, a follow up to 2015’s “Hooked” award winning documentary, will air Tuesday, January 10th, 6:30 P.M. AZ time on every tv and most radio stations in Arizona. At 7P.M. it will be available for viewing thereafter on the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism web site at:


Another compelling video worth watching is “This Is (Not) About Drugs,” produced by Overdose Lifeline. The video features several young people sharing their own struggle with drugs or that of someone close to them.

County Attorney Bill Montgomery shares his take on the video saying, “What is compelling to me is hearing young people share, in their own words, their experiences in the hopes that others will heed the warning. We need kids and young adults to know that trying the drug even one time can very likely lead to a long-term path of addiction and possibly death.”

-This Is (Not) About Drugs: www.youtube.com/watch?v=21FItc9x4VI