From long-term injecting to long-term non-injecting heroin and cocaine use: The persistence of changed drug habits

OBJECTIVES: Transitioning from injecting to non-injecting routes of drug administration can provide important individual and community health benefits. We assessed characteristics of persons who had ceased injecting while continuing to use heroin and/or cocaine in New York City.

METHODS: We recruited subjects entering Mount Sinai Beth Israel detoxification and methadone maintenance programs between 2011 and 2015. Demographic information, drug use histories, sexual behaviors, and “reverse transitions” from injecting to non-injecting drug use were assessed in structured face-to-face interviews. There were 303 “former injectors,” operationally defined as persons who had injected at some time in their lives, but had not injected in at least the previous 6 months. Serum samples were collected for HIV and HCV testing.

RESULTS: Former injectors were 81% male, 19% female, 17% White, 43% African-American, and 38% Latino/a, with a mean age of 50 (SD = 9.2), and were currently using heroin and/or cocaine. They had injected drugs for a mean of 14 (SD = 12.2) years before ceasing injection, and a mean of 13 (SD = 12) years had elapsed since their last injection. HIV prevalence among the sample was 13% and HCV prevalence was 66%. The former injectors reported a wide variety of reasons for ceasing injecting. Half of the group appeared to have reached a point where relapse back to injecting was no longer problematic: they had not injected for three or more years, were not deliberately using specific techniques to avoid relapse to injecting, and were not worried about relapsing to injecting.

CONCLUSIONS: Former injectors report very-long term behavior change toward reduced individual and societal harm while continuing to use heroin and cocaine. The behavior change appears to be self-sustaining, with full replacement of an injecting route of drug administration by a non-injecting route of administration. Additional research on the process of long-term cessation of injecting should be conducted within a “combined prevention and care” approach to HIV and HCV infection among persons who use drugs.

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Full citation:
Des Jarlais DC, Arasteh K, Feelemyer J, McKnight C, Barnes DM, Tross S, Perlman DC, Campbell ANC, Cooper HLF, Hagan H (2016).
From long-term injecting to long-term non-injecting heroin and cocaine use: The persistence of changed drug habits
Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 71, 48-53. doi: 10.1016/j.jsat.2016.08.015. PMCID: PMC5117630.