Chart: Colorado among states with growing heroin, prescription drug abuse problem

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Photo: Colorado Overdose rates
Pictured are the rates of overdose death per 100,000 people in Colorado.

Nationally, fatal heroin overdoses have risen again, this time by 39 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Colorado is no exception to the trend. The number of heroin overdose deaths here rose from 91 people in 2012 to 118 people in 2013, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

It's all part of the "opioid epidemic." Prescription opioids used to treat pain--Percocet, Oxycontin, Vicodin and other medications--are being abused. And as the country tightens access to pain pills, some are turning to heroin, an illegal opioid.

Opioids are chemicals that can treat pain or create euphoria, but also known to be addictive.

"People don't realize that medicine cabinets can be like leaving a loaded gun on the counter," said Robert Valuck, coordinator of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention.

Last year, the group produced Colorado's plan to reduce prescription drug abuse by bringing together law enforcement, professional organizations and state agencies to work together on issues surrounding prescription abuse. The planners aspire to prevent 92,000 Coloradans from misusing opioids by 2016.

Since 1999, prescription drug overdoses have moved from the metropolitan areas in the Front Range and Pueblo to less populous parts of the state like Mesa Country. Today, several areas with high prescription drug overdoses have growing rates of heroin overdose as well. Below, a series of visuals to put that into context.

Prescription drug abuse

This map shows prescription opioid overdose deaths per 100,000 people

During 2010-2011, Colorado ranked second-worst among all states for prescription
drug misuse, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Since then, the state has fallen 10 spots to be ranked as the 12th worst in the nation.

But keeping Coloradans engaged with the dangers of prescription abuse is difficult in a state where marijuana safety dominates the conversation, admits Valuck.

"Marijuana is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, when in fact, 295 Coloradans died two years ago of prescription drug overdoses," he notes.

In 2012, 36 drivers who tested positive for marijuana were involved in fatal car crashes, according the Colorado Department of Transportation. And 19-year-old Levy Thamba jumped to his death after consuming six times the recommended dose of a marijuana edible in April 2014.

Heroin abuse

This map shows heroin overdose deaths per 100,000 people

In 2013, 76 more people died from a heroin overdose than during 1999, for a total of 118 deaths. That's less dramatic that the increase in prescription drug overdoses, but advocates across the state are still worried about heroin.

For one, it's important to remember that not all people who use heroin die from it.

And since 2008, there has been a 27 percent increase among 18 to 24 year olds in the state using heroin, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services.

It's part of a lifespan problem that's linked to prescription drugs, Valuck says.

"If you start out early, you gradually get to use more and more. And you get more hardcore over years and years, he said.

"Then you move away from prescription drugs because they're so hard to get after a while. Then you move to stuff like heroin."