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Understanding America’s heroin problem

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A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals some grave details about the prevalence of addiction in America.

More than two out of every 1,000 people in the U.S. over the age of 12 have used heroin at some point between 2011 and 2013 -- a 63 percent increase from a similar survey conducted nearly 10 years earlier.

In addition, the report revealed that heroin-related deaths have quadrupled over the past decade. While no two cases are alike, the CDC says people who depend on opioid pain relievers, like Vicodin or Oxycontin, run a significantly greater risk of developing a heroin addiction. The new report confirms what addiction treatment specialists like Dr. Karen Miotto have known for some time.

“It’s the No. 1 reason we see people coming to the addiction medicine clinic,” Miotto said. “It’s been growing over the past several years, as people have been exposed to more opiate pain medication, and tragically, transition to heroin.”

Miotto is the director of addiction medicine at UCLA, and she says she’s started to notice a trend.

“I would say 30 to 35 percent of the people we see start off using pain pills, whether for treatment for a painful condition, or they obtain the pills that [family] or friends were using for pain,” she said.

Miotto says opioids can affect patients in a variety of ways. “With opiates, there’s a very powerful withdrawal. [I] think people, as well as doctors who are treating people for pain, don’t realize how medications can develop a life of their own,” she said.

According to Miotto, if patients and doctors aren’t vigilant, what was once legitimate treatment can turn into real addiction.

San Francisco resident Tracey Helton knows this all too well. Helton struggled with a black tar heroin addiction for eight years before she finally got clean.

“I was abusing prescription opiates for about a year, then I was introduced to heroin,” Helton said.

Her first real experience with opiates came at age 17, after she had her wisdom teeth removed. As she transitioned to college, she continued to experiment.

“I had done some appropriate experimentation with alcohol and marijuana, but I just remember the opiates giving me the feeling of euphoria,” she said. Continued use took an increasingly negative toll on Helton’s life. “I had multiple rock bottoms. [Going from] a college student at the University of Cincinnati with a future, to sticking a needle in the holes of my feet behind a shopping cart in an alleyway, and that’s where I lived … and that’s not really even the bottom …”

Press the play button above to hear more about Tracey’s story and heroin addiction in California.