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Understanding painkiller and heroin abuse

Daniel A. Anderson/California Watch “Our kids are dying,” said Dr. Robert Winokur, medical director of emergency room services at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo. 

Do you have a friend, child or loved one who has turned to heroin after an addiction to prescription painkillers? You’re not alone. Reporters from California Watch and KQED Public Radio took a look into drug abuse among California’s youth, detailing how many young pill addicts in the state and across the U.S. are increasingly using heroin, sometimes with fatal results.

To give readers more perspective and context on painkiller and heroin abuse, we’ve put together the following resource roundup. We’ll be engaging educators, counselors and those who have been through addiction and overdose-related loss to see how we might be able to create a more robust and effective toolkit for teachers, families and friends who want to share information on handling opioid and heroin addiction. We want this to be the start of a conversation on building a resource guide to educate young people on the issue, so please let us know your thoughts about what we should add.

Expect more to come in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, check out these resources and email Cole Goins at cgoins@cironline.org with your thoughts and suggestions for improving this guide.


Codeine: Narcotic pain medication used to treat moderate pain; codeine comes in both liquid and tablet form.

Fentanyl: An opioid used to treat pain in cancer patients, not for use with pain that is not cancer-related, such as headaches. Because of its highly addictive nature, this medication is available only through special programs for which patients must register.

Methadone: An opioid prescribed for pain relief, also used to help addicts withdraw safely from heroin.

Narcotic: An opioid-based drug.

Opana: A powerful prescription painkiller containing the opioid oxymorphone.

OxyContin: An oxycodone pain reliever, similar to methadone; used for the long-term treatment of severe pain; highly addictive.

Polypharmacy: The use of multiple medications by a patient.

Soma: A compound of aspirin and carisoprodol (muscle relaxant and pain reliever); Soma is a muscle relaxant meant to reduce pain, fever and inflammation.

Valium: Diazepam, used for treatment of anxiety disorders, alcohol withdrawal, muscle spasms and other conditions; similar to Xanax, this medication is highly addictive.

Vicodin: A combination of hydrocodone and acetaminophen; an opioid prescribed for relief of moderate to severe pain.

Xanax: Alprazolam, used to treat anxiety and panic disorders; similar to Valium, this medication is highly addictive.

Key agencies involved


California's Medicaid program, which is funded by federal and state tax dollars, pays for a variety of medical benefits and services for children and adults with limited means and resources. It covers certain services that federal Medicaid does not, including dental screenings.

Medical Board of California

The regulatory body for physicians and other medical professionals handles complaints about licensees and ensures that the Medical Practice Act is enforced.

  • Phone: 800-633-2322
  • Address: Central Complaint Unit 2005 Evergreen St., Suite 1200 Sacramento, CA 95815
  • Website: http://www.mbc.ca.gov

Where to get help

Learn to Cope: A support group for parents and family members dealing with a loved one’s addiction to OxyContin, heroin and other drugs.

National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse: An organization dedicated to creating awareness of the dangers caused by prescription drug abuse.

Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration: Part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this agency has many resources for those with medication addictions and their families, including a map of drug and alcohol abuse treatment programs in your area.

GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing): A national organization that offers help for families or individuals who have had a loved one die as a result of substance abuse or addiction. Find a list of its chapters below.

The DOPE (Drug Overdose Prevention and Education) Project: A San Francisco-based effort of the Harm Reduction Coalition that aims to reduce the number of overdose deaths in the city by providing prevention education to drug users and their loved ones and naloxone (a drug that counteracts the effects of opiates) to drug users.

Suggested reading

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has many resources for those with medication addictions and their families, including a map of drug and alcohol abuse treatment programs in your area.

Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, which promotes responsible opioid prescribing practices, has resources for primary care physicians including prescribing guides and educational videos. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Vital Signs reports on the rise of prescription painkiller overdoses and the risks of taking methadone as a pain reliever. 

This 2011 analysis of opioid pain reliever deaths from 1999 to 2008 found that opioid pain reliever overdose rates have increased so much that they now exceed deaths involving cocaine and heroin.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has this list of commonly abused prescription drugs.

Oxy Watchdog, a blog from reporter Erin Marie Daly, keeps an eye on prescription drug addiction.

The National Council on Patient Information and Education has a useful guide that details the warning signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse.

The Partnership at Drugfree.org has a database of commonly abused drugs.

Need information on a specific pill or prescription medication? Check out Drugs.com’s pill identifier.


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