Sociology Essay: Impact of Heroin on Families

Table of contents

In today’s global world, there has been rising cases of drug abuse. Illicit use of Opiates, especially heroin has dominated most parts of the world with more than 281,000 heroin users in England and more than 50,000 drug users in Scotland. UK currently has the highest the rates of illicit drug use in the European Union (Setdon, 2008).Research conducted in the past has been focused on the causes and consequences of heroin abuse primarily from the standpoint of the addict. There has been a scant coverage on the policy framework with regard to drug abuse. It is thus worth exploring on this menacing drug in quest to look for ways and means of eradicating it. As such, this paper involves an analysis of heroin and its impact on the families. The paper further provides an in depth view on the policy developments with evidence to back the claims.


A delve on heroin would be incomplete without exploring its historical background. The passing of the 1914 Harrison Act in US banned the use of cocaine and opiates. After the passing of the act, regular users in US switched to heroin, which at the time was not regulated by this Act. This drug was not considered addictive for quite sometime. In the mid 1920s, intravenous injection of heroin became popular but was later banned by the US government. While in UK, emergency drug controls were introduced under the wartime defense of the realm act in 1916. Opiates were not its main concern. However, the Dangerous Act of 1920 made possession of opiates and cocaine’s illegal unless prescribed by the doctor.

Global problems of illicit drugs pose various challenges to the international community. Heroin in particular can be detrimental to the life of the community. Despite the growing concern on illicit drug use, it is striking to note that the current drug policies are inadequate. Lack of adequate approaches and models to guide policy makers is a major hindrance to solving the drug menace.

Literature review

According to Hunt (1974), heroin is associated with epidemics. The notion of the drug epidemics stem from the fact that drug use is a learned behaviour transmitted from person to person. Western countries have experienced one discrete heroin epidemic. For example, studies have shown that United States and Netherlands experienced the epidemic of heroin use in the late 1960’s and since then each country has had moderate levels of initiation. Nordt & Stohler (2006) has particularly shown this with regard to Zurich which underwent a major epidemic in 1995. Studies for UK by Parker & Egginton (1998), showed two epidemics prevalent in 1980’s and 1990’s.

De Angelis et al (2004) studied the prevalence of heroin addiction in UK while using sophisticated modelling techniques and found that the prevalence of heroin addiction in the UK grew from 1968 to 2000, with rapid growth in the 1990’s. Frischer & Ditton (2001) analyzed the drug prevalence for Glasgow that showed a high incidence of heroin injection from 1985 to 1995. The drug menace is still prominent in most areas around the globe. Research studies have not fully explored on the impacts of such continuing trends. Furthermore, explanations offered are opportunistic and still not well integrated. What is most striking is that the socio-economic effects of opiate use have not been fully reflected in the public domain or policy discourse.


Impact of heroin use on the family

Heroin is a dangerous illicit drug that has devastating effects on the user and the wider community. Research studies on various countries have shown a very high level of consistency in the adverse effects associated with heroin use. The problems facing the families of the drug users are diverse and complex. McDonald et al (2002) summarized these problems by highlighting four key areas. These are: physical and psychological impacts, financial and employment effects and wider societal impacts.

Physical and psychological impacts

The findings from various studies have indicated serious dire consequences on the physical and psychological well being of the family members. Heroin use in most families in the UK often leads to heightened negative emotions that result in contradictory feelings towards the user. This contributes to stress hence resulting in higher physical and psychological morbidity of the family members. Studies by Copollo et al (2000) suggests that every drug user in the UK will in most cases have a significant negative impact on the wellbeing of one of the members of the family. Echoing the findings from Copollo et al (2000), Bernard (2005) found that parents and siblings experience anxiety which is greatly compounded by the sense of being powerless when coping with the effect of these drugs in their lives.

Financial and employment effects

Studies have further revealed that financial pressures on families often stem from various factors linked to drug use. These include the treatment cost, repaying and remedying theft on the part of the user. Also heroin use has been associated with the vicious cycle of poverty.

Impact on wider social life of family members

Generally, opiate use often results in the wider social life of the family members becoming circumscribed by social isolation and withdrawal by trying to conceal the problem. Frequently, this drug menace leads to deterioration in family relationships which is exacerbated by increased risk of domestic violence. Conflicts and tensions on the part of those coping with drug users lead to marital and family break up (Seddon, 2000).

Consequently, this drug menace is often associated with crime. Unsurprisingly, a vast number of users turn to a life of crime in an attempt to fuel their addiction to the illegal opiate. There is strong evidence that problematic use of illicit drugs, notably cocaine and heroin, is responsible for amplifying offending behavior. The drug use is associated with acquisitive crime such as burglary and shoplifting. According to a report by the UK drug policy commission, the current value of illegal drugs in UK market stand at ?5bn annually. In England and Wales, it is estimated that the drug related crime costs roughly around 13.5 billion pounds.

Studies by the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit (2003) have invariably indicated heroin and cocaine to be of greater influence on crime levels than Cannabis. Despite the rapid expansion of cannabis market in the UK, it is surprising to see heroin and cocaine extremely influential in fueling the crime levels (Bancroft et al, 2002).Clearly, there is urgent need for interventions to be put in place to solve this drug menace.

While most of these adverse effects derive directly from opiate use and the associated behaviours, there are other external factors contributing to stress in the drug users families. Three such stressors are common in UK. The first stressor is the stigma associated with heroin use. Stigma adds significantly to the stress levels and further inhibits parents from seeking help.

The second stressor stems from lack of available information. Copollo (2000) provides evidence on lack of information being an important contributor to the stress levels experienced by these families. While McDonald et al (2002) argue that much of the available information is from questionable sources like the media. Last but not the least is the treatment system for the user. While treatment may be available, most families coping with opiate misuse have indicated high levels of dissatisfaction with the treatment system. Much criticism has been on the long waiting lists for treatment which often result in frustration.

Policy responses

Over the past few years, the UK drug policy has focused on four key areas namely: prevention of drug use, supply reduction, treatment of problematic drug users and enforcement of drug laws.

Supply reduction

While the British drug policy has emphasized increasing drug seizures in an attempt to reduce the supply of illicit drugs into the market, research by PMSU (2003) has revealed that this policy approach would not make any significant difference in drug availability in the market. In the 2002 Drug Strategy Update, amendments were made by the government to include reduction of available drugs through increased seizures. As initially predicted, increased seizures have not reduced the availability of drugs in the market. More recent reports have indicated heroin to be selling at around ?54 per gram while a two-tier market for cocaine has developed with a selling price of ?50 per gram. Despite the fall in prices, drug selling still remains an attractive activity. The policy on supply reduction clearly doesn’t work effectively

Enforcement of drug laws

The government has been responsive on reducing drug related crimes through disruption of the drug market and arrest of the drug dealers and users. Little evidence is however available that targeting retailers and distributors of illicit drugs would lead to substantial reduction in drug use. Available studies in UK have indicated that the crackdowns often result in changes rather than reduction in drug use (SOURCE).

Prevention of drug use

For sometime now, it has been argued that drug use and the associated crimes may be reduced through prevention (SOURCE). While this holds true, little evidence is available to prove these claims. Moreover, the impacts of prevention programmes tend to be small. Current evidence on drug prevention by Godfrettson et al (2002) shows that it is difficult to apply evidence of prevention on best practice.

Treatment of problematic users

Treatment of drug addiction has its roots in the US penal system. Recently, there has been increased focus of putting treatment of addiction in the context of criminal justice system. In line with the rapid expansion of treatment, various criminal justice system initiatives have been developed such as the Drug Abstinence Requirement, Criminal Justice Intervention Programme, Drug Treatment and Testing Order among others. These initiatives derive their basis from the notion that drug treatment reduces offences. Available evidence has proved this notion to be true. It should however be noted that while treatment can be effective for cocaine and crack users, engaging and retaining the users of heroin is much harder.

Various interests involved

The frequent use and widespread availability of drugs sets the stage for potential abuse among the users which is the main burden facing the society. Below are some of the various interests involved.

Financial constraint

Problematic use of drugs poses financial constraints on the economy of a country and the world at large. For example, $23.5 million was the projected estimate for the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice fund and the United Nations International Drug Control Programme fund in the annual period of 2010. However, the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice and the Commission on Narcotics’ Drug approved a general budget of $21.8 million for both funds (Godfrey, Stewart & Gossop, 2010). The approved budget is far below the projected estimate and this affect the various provisions and undermines the effort of combating drug related crimes. Clearly, there is urgent need for measures to be taken by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime towards addressing these financial challenges.

Drug service user groups

These user groups are fundamental in developing user involvement. The groups provide access to expert opinion and solidarity to the users (Eaton, 2007).While these user groups are critical in user involvement, studies have shown that they provide only a partial solution to the challenge of developing user involvement. Moreover, there is proof of evidence of conflict between the agency and user expectations. Such problems arise due to the inability of drug users to form effective groups.

Approaches to the policy framework

It is high time to rethink of our existing drug control laws. Policy makers need to develop a new constitution for drug control. Research collaboration must be set up to look at new approaches to drug control by reviewing international approaches and joining forces with experts from drug enforcement, medicine control, regulation, public and trading standards.

Instead of advocating for war on drugs, a new drug policy needs to be put in place that calls for the management of the problem. The legal, economic and political complexity of managing drug problems is a clue to what must replace the drug prohibition approach. The policy however cannot be revised by independently focusing on the criminal justice and correctional system. Care of addicts, especially opiate addicts need to be placed in the hands of private physicians and not the police.

While drug treatment has proved to be the best way of tackling drug related crimes and reducing drug use, it should be noted that treatment is only the beginning and not an end in itself. There is need for a wider support for it to be effective. Therefore, a new drug strategy must be developed with focus on recovery. Besides treating their dependence, this approach reintegrates them into the family and makes them productive members of the society. Taking a recovery based approach to drug policy is perhaps the best method of combating this social vice.


From the findings above, it can be concluded that the impact of heroin abuse on the family and wider society is immense. From a policy standpoint, there is need for development new tentative policies. Appropriate approaches and models must be developed to guide policy makers in incorporating drug issues in the policy framework.


  1. Hunt. L.G. (1974), Recent Spread of Heroin Use in the United States, American Journal of Public Health Affairs, Vol 74: pp.16–23.
  2. Nordt, C. & Stohler.R (2006), Incidence of Heroin Use in Zurich, Switzerland; a Treatment Case Register Analysis,’ The Lancet 367: 1830–4.
  3. Parker, H. & Egginton.R (undated), Managing Local Heroin–Crack Problems, Manchester University
  4. De Angelis. D., Hickman.M. & Yang.S (2004), Estimating Long-term Trends in the Incidence and Prevalence of Opiate Use/Injecting Drug use and Number of Former Users, American Journal of Epidemiology Vol 160: pp.994–1004
  5. Ditton, J. & Frischer.M (2001), Computerised Projection of Future Heroin Epidemics: A Necessity for the 21st Century, Journal of Substance Use and Abuse Vol 36, pp.151–66
  6. McDonald, D., Russell, P., Bland, N., Morrison, A., & De la Cruz. C. (2002), Supporting families and careers of drug users: A review, Scottish Executive – Effective Interventions Unit
  7. Copollo (2000), Responding to addiction in the family: Natural and assisted change in coping behavior, University of Birmingham, Unpublished PhD thesis
  8. Barnard, M. (2005), Drugs in the Family: The Impact on Parents and Siblings, London
  9. PMSU (2003) SU Drugs Report. Phase 1 report: Understanding the issues, London: Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit
  10. Godfrettson. C., G. Eaton, C. McDougall & Culyer. A. (2002), The Economic and Social Costs of Class A Drug use in England and Wales, Home Office Research Study 249, London: Home Office
  11. Seddon.T (2008), Youth, heroin, crack: a review of recent British trends, University of Manchester, vol 108, pp 237-248
  12. Seddon, T. (2000), Explaining the Drug–Crime Link: Theoretical, Policy and
  13. Research Issues, Journal of Social Policy 29(1): 95–107
  14. Bancroft, A., Carty, A., Cunningham-Burley, S. & Backett-Milburn, K. (2002), Support for the families of drug users: A review of the Literature, Scottish Executive – Effective Interventions Unit
  15. Eaton. G., Davies.C, English.L, Lodwick.A, Bellis.M.A & McVeigh.J. (2007), United Kingdom Drug Situation: Annual Report to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, London.
  16. Godfrey.C., Stewart.D & Gossop.M (2010), Economic analysis of costs and consequences of the treatment of drug misuse: 2-year outcome data from the National Treatment Outcome Research Study (NTORS), Vol 99, pp.697–707.


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