06/01/2016 6:55 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Heroin Use Could Be Making A Comeback

In Australia's popular culture, what celebrities do and what happens in the UK and US are important. And if this is true for Gen Y Australians, then increased heroin use shouldn't be a surprise.

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Drug syringe and cooked heroin on spoon

The findings in Odyssey House's latest annual report may be an early warning of changes in Australia's drug problem. like the canaries in the coalmines of yore. Defying logic, heroin use and abuse in Australia may be making a comeback.

Since 1979, Odyssey House has been one of Australia's leading drug treatment providers and are well positioned and qualified to make early calls on changes in drug-use patterns.

For over 10 years, Australia's national drug strategies have achieved unprecedented success in suppressing the demand and supply of heroin in our communities.

In the early 2000s, pop culture seemingly delivered a final death blow to heroin-chic. And so heroin was increasingly perceived as a junkie's drug by Generation X.

In Australia's popular culture, what celebrities do and what happens in the UK and US are important. And if this is true for Gen Y Australians, then increased heroin use shouldn't be a surprise.

The US Government's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2015 that heroin use has increased across the US among men and women, most age groups, and all income levels. Alarmingly, the number of heroin-related overdose deaths in the US has quadrupled in the past 10 years. In short, heroin is now very popular in the US, a trend that should sound alarm bells for Australia's drug policy makers.

Since the early '70s, heroin use and overdose among US celebrities has been common. Sifting fact from fiction regarding rumoured celebrity heroin use isn't easy. But the heroin overdose deaths of celebrities, such as Peaches Geldof and actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2014 are illustrative of the drug's increasing popularity and inter-generational attractiveness.

Bureaucrats and politicians are generally the last to realise that a change in the Australian drug market has occurred. It is civil society organisations like Odyssey House that see the changes first and offer early warning. It is the police, ambulance, and health services workers who will then see the early impacts of drug trends first-hand.

Ignoring an early warning of a potential drug problem can be risky. In November 1991, a joint Australian Federal Police and Customs report warned the government of the threat of Ice, which at the time was a new drug on the market. Both agencies unsuccessfully lobbied the federal government to develop a campaign to stop its spread. And, as they say, the rest is history.

More often than not, policy action in the context of drug trends rises from media coverage. It drives change more effectively than warnings from police, doctors or social workers. By mid-2013, Australian politicians and bureaucrats had become increasingly concerned about the Ice problem. The media coverage of the ice epidemic in 2014 quickly motivated political action. Then in 2015 we had a National Ice Task Force and National Ice Action Strategy.

I don't think we need a rapid call to action in response to Odyssey House's report, or a National Heroin Task Force. At this early stage we need user research, criminal intelligence and a proactive open-minded bureaucracy.

Now that the early warning has been provided, it is the time for drug-user research. This research needs to focus on ascertaining whether there is a change in drug user preferences, and if so, what its trends are. Put simply, this research needs to focus on identifying if there is a problem and, if so, how we might proactively reduce demand and minimise harms.

Given recent United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reporting has revealed that heroin production in the Golden Triangle is once again high, it is time for the Australian Federal Police, Australian Crime Commission and Australian Border Force to collect and analyse criminal intelligence on heroin in Australia and regionally. The focus of this body of work should be on identifying trends in heroin supply in Australia and how this might be reduced.

Finally, we need a bureaucracy and legislature that is willing to proactively invest resources to prevent a change in drug patterns. If this doesn't occur, there is a chance that in the future we might be facing a heroin epidemic, and asking ourselves how we sleepwalked into the problem.