MSUToday
Published: June 6, 2018

About 30 percent of new heroin users become dependent in the first year

Contact(s): James Anthony Department of Epidemiology janthony@msu.edu, Sarina Gleason Media Communications office: (517) 355-9742 sarina.gleason@cabs.msu.edu

It’s estimated that 300 to 520 people start using heroin each day in the United States.

A new Michigan State University study now shows that about one-third of those users become dependent on the drug within one to 12 months, indicating that prior estimates of 20 to 25 percent have been too low.

“Earlier studies counted heroin dependence cases from the time someone begins using throughout their many years of use,” said James Anthony, senior author and an epidemiologist who has been studying drug use for more than 40 years. “Our study focused on the first 12 months after first heroin use.”

The federally funded research is now published in JAMA Psychiatry.

Anthony, along with lead author Olga Santiago Rivera in MSU’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, reviewed data that had been collected between 2002 and 2016 from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, or NSDUH, which tracks drug use in the U.S.

Looking year by year, the team identified more than 1,000 new users, the youngest being 12 years old, and studied each user’s experience and the symptoms of dependence that emerged since the first day of starting heroin.

“Looking at drug use just one year later makes it less likely for subjects to die or be imprisoned, and these are factors that would have taken them out of view in these studies,” Anthony said. “With focus on the most recent 12 months, it’s also easier for participants to be more accurate in their responses, and even more importantly, shows just how quick dependency can form.”

Anthony said dependency rates varied from year to year, with some recent years reaching nearly 50 to 60 percent. The fluctuations, he said, could be a result of heroin becoming more accessible in those years, the cost decreasing or even changes occurring in someone’s prior prescription pain reliever use.

Although, the research team wasn’t able to determine how many times someone had to use the drug to become addicted, the results still offer clearer evidence around heroin dependency and can be indicators that early intervention is crucial in controlling the spread of the current epidemic.

“With the number of people starting to use heroin each day, the more we can provide more compelling data to clinicians and health officials, the more they can use the information to persuade those who might be thinking of using, to not even try it,” Anthony said.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

James C. Anthony in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics has found that one-third of new heroin users become dependent on the drug within one to 12 months. Courtesy photo.

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