Social media provides crucial context and sources for rising toll of heroin epidemic

At this point, most of us know the basic plotline: Heroin is an epidemic, fueled by the proliferation and abuse of OxyContin and other opioid pain relievers starting in the early 2000s. Unsuspecting and suspecting people who could no longer afford the pricey black market-rate of the pills were forced to either get clean or switch to the cheaper, much-deadlier opiate that had been stigmatized for so long. And unfortunately, it’s much easier to make the switch than it is to quit.

I wanted to look at some social media sites and statistics to track awareness and attention to the epidemic. Before I did this, I checked out what the Drug Enforcement Agency had for information on heroin. I found data that showed the seizures of multiple categories of drugs (scroll to the bottom of the page if you want to see the entire table; the hyperlink wasn’t working for me), then parsed out the last ten years of heroin seizures via a spreadsheet and made it into this chart:

Heroin seizures 2004-2014As you can see, minus a spike in 2006, the upward trajectory starts slowly in 2008 and dramatically increases from 2010 to 2011, with the trend sustaining.

The DEA also published the latest National Heroin Threat Assessment Summary in April 2015, which is chock full of interesting, highly-alarming tidbits:

In 2013, 8,620 Americans died from heroin-related overdoses, nearly triple the number in 2010. [emphasis added]

The following chart accompanied the statistic:

Opioid deaths chart

The DEA also addresses the geographic threat of heroin, which it says in the East is currently being supplied by Mexican traffickers “expanding their operations to gain a larger share of eastern U.S. heroin markets.” Historically, Mexican heroin was found West of the Missisippi in black tar form and Southeast Asian white powdered heroin made up the bulk of supply East of the Mississippi:

The largest, most lucrative heroin markets in the United States are the white powder markets in major eastern cities: Baltimore, Boston and its surrounding cities, Chicago, New York City and the surrounding metropolitan areas, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and these are the markets where Mexican traffickers are trying to gain a larger share.

Later on in the document, the DEA states that “Mexican traffickers control established transportation and distribution infrastructures that allow them to reliably supply markets throughout the United States.”

The DEA included this data visualization of survey respondents who said that heroin was the greatest drug threat in their area. We can see that New England, Middle Atlantic and Midwest states had the largest share of respondents saying heroin was the greatest threat:

Geography of GTD

So how does all of this pan out in social media networks and Google searches? By using Google Trends, we can see how people searched for different phrases over time, and where those people lived at the time.

Note that the points, which top out at 100 on the line graph visualizations, represent when terms were most searched and does not represent the actual number of searches. In other words, true to their source’s name, these points give us a sense of trends rather than actual volume.

People have been searching on “heroin” in a steady upward trajectory roughly since 2009, according to this Google Trends line chart, with the highest peak in Feb. 2014.  This correlates almost exactly to the DEA line graph of heroin seizures:

Source: Google Trends

Volumen of Google searches for “heroin.” (Source: Google Trends)

Heroin seizures 2004-2014

Geographically, Google also lets us see from where people are searching. Below, we can see that just as the DEA showed in its latest heroin threat assessment, the Northeast, Middle Atlantic and Midwest regions are the hotbed of “heroin” Google searches.

Source: Google Trends

Origins of searches for “heroin.” (Source: Google Trends)

There are other relevant terms that can be searched. How about “heroin withdrawal”? This trajectory is noticeably steeper than just heroin, perhaps reflecting a more intimate association with the drug and what it’s like to withdraw from it. Note that the peak was also in Feb. 2014, which is when acclaimed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died from a heroin overdose after lengthy sobriety.

Google searches for

Volume of Google searches for “heroin withdrawal” (Source: Google Trends)

Here is the chart for “Suboxone,” a heroin replacement and weaning drug that has played a large role in the treatment of heroin addiction and is also sold on the black market to users who don’t want to be sick when they can’t obtain their opiate of choice. Suboxone was approved by the FDA in 2002.

Volume of Google searches for

Volume of Google searches for “Suboxone.” (Source: Google Trends)

Narcan (below represented in blue), known generically as naloxone (represented in red) have been crucial to saving the lives of people who overdose on heroin. Once given only via injection, there is now a nasal spray version. Many first responders carry it as standard protocol and it’s widely available for free to users and their loved ones.

Volume of Google searches for

Volume of Google searches for “Narcan” (blue) and “naloxone” (red). (Source: Google Trends)

And a look at the geographic distribution shows the same Northeast, Midwest and Middle Atlantic trifecta of interest in the term “Narcan.” Note how Massachusetts tops the list.

Source: Google Trends

Origins of searches for “Narcan.” Source: Google Trends

Meanwhile, over in the universe of Twitter, I used Topsy to see how topics related to heroin have trended.

In the past 30 days, there have been 109,458 Tweets that mention the word “heroin.” In the past 22 hours, there were 3,062 Tweets, with many of them about the 74 heroin overdoses that occurred in Chicago in 72 hours this past week. According to the Chicago Tribune, authorities suspect that a batch of heroin was laced with fentanyl, an opiate significantly more potent than heroin that’s been responsible for a significant amount of overdose deaths. According to the DEA’s threat assessment report, “In late 2013 and throughout 2014, several states reported spikes in overdose deaths due to fentanyl and its analog acetyl-fentanyl.” The agency also expounded on its use and source:

…fentanyl is most commonly mixed with white powder heroin or is sold disguised as white powder heroin. While pharmaceutical fentanyl (from transdermal patches or lozenges) is diverted for abuse in the United States at small levels, this latest rash of overdose deaths is largely due to clandestinely-produced fentanyl, not diverted pharmaceutical fentanyl.

The Chicago Tribune article detailed the magnitude of the overdoses by including a quote from the hospital emergency room director who dealt with many of the victims:

They’re taking double and triple the doses of Narcan in order to bring them out of their stupor,” Hincks told the Tribune.

An interesting find via Twitter was the hashtag #UnitetoFaceAddiction in advance of an Oct. 4 gathering on the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. Organizers said on the website that the event will bring together tens of thousands of people.

According to the social analytics tab in Topsy, the hashtag has been used 3,685 times in the past 30 days, with widespread use catching fire on Sept. 28 thanks to Dr. Oz urging retweets to promote the event.


On Twitter, I used the advanced search function to search for Tweets near my hometown, Rockland. This yielded leads for sources and recent drug busts, and pointed toward engaged local police departments:

Twitter geo based searchFacebook also yielded some good sources for reporting. Just by searching on the term “heroin,” I came up with a plethora of community-based anti-heroin pages in Massachusetts. One group in particular is for parents and relatives of loved ones on the South Shore. I’ll be reaching out to them for personal stories. Here’s a screenshot of several of the pages:

Facebook groups

In conclusion, social networks and analytic tools can identify trends, events and reporting sources while helping to find real life examples of issues that are conveyed by government agencies via faceless statistics.


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