This qualitative study documents the pathways to injecting heroin by users in Philadelphia and San Francisco before and during a pharmaceutical opioid pill epidemic. Data was collected through in-depth, semi-structured interviews (conducted between 2010 and 2012) that were, conducted against a background of longer-term participant-observation, ethnographic studies of street-based drug users and dealers in Philadelphia (2007-12) and San Francisco (1994-2007, 2012). Philadelphia and San Francisco were selected for their contrasting political economies, immigration patterns and source type of heroin. In Philadelphia the ethnographers found heroin injectors, usually white users, who had started their opiate using careers with prescription opioids rather than transitioning from other drugs. In both Philadelphia and San Francisco, most of the young heroin injectors interviewed began, their drug-use trajectories with opioid pills--usually Percocet (oxycodone and acetaminophen), generic short acting oxycodone or, OxyContin (long-acting oxycodone)--before transitioning to heroin, usually by nasal inhalation (sniffing) or smoking at first, followed by injecting. While most of the Philadelphia users were born in the city or its suburbs and had started using both opioid pills and heroin there, many of the San Francisco users had initiated their pill and sometimes heroin use elsewhere and had migrated to the city from around the country. Nevertheless, patterns of transition of younger injectors were similar in both cities suggesting an evolving national pattern. In contrast, older users in both Philadelphia and San Francisco were more likely to have graduated to heroin injection from non-opiate drugs such as cannabis, methamphetamine and cocaine. Pharmaceutical opioid initiates typically reported switching to heroin for reasons of cost and ease-of-access to supply after becoming physically and emotionally dependent on opioid pills. Many expressed surprise and dismay at their progression to sniffing and subsequently to injecting heroin. Historically and structurally these users found themselves caught at the intersection of two major developments in the opiate supply: (1) an over 500% increase in opiate pill prescription from 1997 to 2005 resulting in easy access to diverted supplies of less stigmatized opiates than heroin and (2) a heroin supply glut, following the US entry of Colombian-sourced, heroin in the early 1990s, that decreased cost and increased purity at the retail level. A nationwide up-cycle of heroin use may be occurring among young inner city, suburban and rural youth fueled by widespread prescription opioid pill use.
Keywords: Drug transitions; Heroin; Injection drug use; Non-injection drug use; Opioid analgesics; Young people; ‘Gateway’ hypothesis.
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