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Does Heroin Abuse Make People Violent?

Joseph Sitarik, DO

Medically reviewed by

Joseph Sitarik, DO

April 11, 2019

Heroin abuse can lead to changes in the brain which may ultimately result in violent behaviors. Treatment for heroin abuse can help a person reverse these behaviors and manage their addiction.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse lists violence as one of the many consequences linked to long-term heroin abuse. However, this does not mean heroin abuse will definitely make a person violent, rather than heroin abuse can cause violent behavior for a number of reasons.

The best way to avoid violence, or other consequences, that result from heroin abuse is to seek help for those who struggle with heroin use disorders. Treatment is available in many forms, and the recent opioid crisis has led to the development of multiple effective methods for managing heroin addiction.

Brain Changes From Heroin Abuse Can Lead To Violence

Heroin abuse can lead to violence for a few different reasons. First, heroin abuse can lead to addiction, a mental reliance on the drug, and physical dependence. Physical dependence results in withdrawal symptoms which can be vastly uncomfortable. Withdrawal is often what drives heroin-dependent individuals to do things they may not do otherwise, in order to seek and use the drug.

How Heroin Works In The Brain

Heroin works in the brain by attaching to its opioid receptors, producing pleasurable feelings which lead to an altered perception of pain, euphoria, and extreme relaxation or sedation. Due to these positive effects, people become addicted to heroin quite easily. When people take heroin, these effects onset immediately or very quickly (depending on the method of abuse).

After just a short time and with repeated use of heroin, a person comes to rely on the drug, not only to produce the desired effects but to function. To create feelings of pain-relief and pleasure, heroin interrupts the brain’s natural process for producing these effects, eventually replacing this process altogether.

This means the brain stops producing feel-good chemicals, like dopamine, which are necessary for a person to experience happiness or pleasure. As a result, a person will come to crave heroin when not using the drug. When dependence forms, these cravings can be so strong and overwhelming the person may become agitated, irritable, and frustrated when not able to obtain the drug.

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Heroin Addiction And Violence

Seeking heroin becomes the main occupation when a person is addicted, and this can lead to violent encounters. The changes which occur within a person from heroin addiction can be so extensive the person may lie, steal, or commit a violent crime to get money for heroin, get the drug, or pay off a debt for heroin they have already taken.

In 2015, certain major cities reported a 12.5 percent increase in heroin-related arrests which coincided with a national increase in violent crimes and homicides. It’s uncertain whether the increase in homicide rates and violent crimes were a direct result of the increase in heroin abuse and addiction. However, use of the drug is at an all-time high and it’s occurring at the same rate as violent crime.

In fact, the U.S Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in one study that 17 percent of state prisoners and 18 percent of federal prisoners admitted to committing their current offense to obtain drug money.

As of September 2018, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had helped 13 cities implement a “360 strategy,” which helps these cities respond to heroin and prescription opioid abuse and the violent crimes linked to it.

Link Between Heroin Abuse And Domestic Violence

Heroin abuse has also been linked to vast incidents of domestic violence. Multiple studies have confirmed the relationship between illicit drug abuse and domestic violence, but one study of opioid-dependent fathers showed overwhelming incidents of violence which occurred with heavy frequency.

The study compared men who had abused opioids, which include heroin, and was in treatment or had been in treatment for opioid abuse and men who had not had an opioid abuse problem for at least one year.

Results of the study show that men who abuse opioids in co-parenting relationships were more likely to commit:

  • physical violence
  • sexual violence
  • psychological aggression

Violent actions by heroin- or opioid-dependent fathers were most often directed at the mother. When the opioid-dependent mothers in this same report were studied, the same was also true for violence directed at the co-parenting father.

Further, the violence reported by the opioid-dependent fathers was still reported even if the fathers no longer lived with or held an intimate relationship with the mother of their child.

Does Heroin Withdrawal Cause Violence?

What about heroin is strong enough to drive a person to violence? The answer may be withdrawal. While heroin withdrawal is rarely life-threatening, the symptoms are strong enough to feel that way to anyone experiencing it.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms begin mildly, with symptoms like agitation, irritation, and muscle aches or sweating. With time, and especially for those severely addicted to heroin, these symptoms can worsen, including nausea, vomiting, headache, diarrhea, and stomach cramps.

These symptoms are likely accompanied by psychological cravings and urge—an overwhelming feeling of a need to seek the drug. This is a person’s brain telling them they need to get the drug and get it soon, no matter what.

While heroin symptoms may sound mild, they are highly uncomfortable. When coupled with the powerful mental cravings and urges, they can be too much for a person to bear without help. This may prompt them to engage in behaviors they may never have considered before using heroin.

Can Violent Behaviors Caused By Heroin Be Reversed?

Some studies have suggested that a long-term consequence of heroin abuse is deterioration of the brain’s white matter, which may be responsible for behavior, response to stressful situations, and the ability to make logical decisions.

While it may not be possible to replace this white matter, some help is available in reversing the behaviors which result. Behavioral therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy, can help a person change back their brain chemistry.

Essentially, this type of therapy asks a person to work against the damaging changes caused by heroin abuse, rewiring their brain to respond to situations, produce happy thoughts and feelings, and create a pattern for a substance-free life.

Inpatient treatment programs can also help a person change their violent behaviors. Medication-assisted treatment can aid a person in managing withdrawal symptoms long-term, affording them a better opportunity for an effective treatment experience and lasting recovery. Counseling, various forms of therapy, and support groups also lend to complete treatment for heroin use disorders.

Learn how to help someone who struggles with violence linked to heroin use, and heroin addiction treatment programs, by contacting us today.

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Heroin: Overview

National Institute on Drug Abuse - What are the long-term effects of heroin use?

U.S. National Library of Medicine: National Institutes of Health - Drug Abuse and Intimate Partner Violence: A Comparative Study of Opioid-Dependent Fathers

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