U.S. heroin surge reaches Garfield County
Second of two parts.
Heroin is making a comeback, and Garfield County isn’t immune to its influence.
Grand River Health in Rifle said it had treated 25 opiate cases — “dependence, adverse affect and poisoning” — in its emergency room through Sept. 30, compared with eight such cases in the first nine months last year.
Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said of heroin, “We’re not seeing a lot, but we never used to see any.”
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fatal heroin overdoses have more than tripled nationally in the last decade. The trend coincides with a similar spike in opioid painkiller overdoses, which in turn follows a massive increase in prescriptions.
“Enough prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult around-the-clock for a month,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. “Although most of these pills were prescribed for a medical purpose, many ended up in the hands of people who misused or abused them.”
Just a generation ago, doctors generally were cautious about prescribing opioid painkillers, but the introduction of OxyContin and a pharmaceutical-industry-backed push to treat pain more aggressively starting in the mid-1990s changed that.
The CDC, which in July reported a doubling of heroin users from 2002 to 2013, also estimates that people addicted to opioid painkillers are 40 times more likely to develop a heroin habit. As legislatures attempt to crack down on opiates, the black market is ready to fill the void.
In sum, the explosion of painkiller prescriptions — up 300 percent between 1999 and 2010 — and a dramatic increase in heroin from Mexico have fueled a new opiate crisis around the country. It is particularly acute in places including Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Vermont — whose governor in 2014 devoted his entire State of the State speech to “a full-blown heroin crisis.” In West Virginia on Wednesday, President Barack Obama pledged a federal push to fight the scourge.
Locally, heroin trails cocaine and methamphetamine in illicit drug use by a long shot. So far this year, the Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team (TRIDENT) has seized 61 grams of mostly Mexican black tar heroin, compared with 5.9 kilograms of methamphetamine. Still, that’s more than the 43 grams of heroin seized last year or the 2.8 grams in 2013 — much less 2012 and 2011, in which no heroin was recovered at all.
Right now, heroin is significantly more expensive in Garfield County than on the Front Range, according to Silt Police Chief and TRIDENT Chairman Levy Burris. Moreover, most people TRIDENT has encountered with heroin were carrying relatively small amounts, suggesting use as opposed to distribution.
That doesn’t mean law enforcement isn’t concerned.
“Our enforcement policy is that drugs are illegal and they’re dangerous,” Burris said. “They impact the user, their family, and their friends. We see the property crime as a side effect. That’s how they supply their habits.”
That seems to be particularly true of heroin. In a 2011 survey of 292 Scottish clinical experts, heroin was ranked worst out of 19 common recreational drugs — including methamphetamine and crack cocaine — in both personal and social harm.
Burris also noted an increase of heroin usage in the age 16-24 demographic.
“It’s getting into younger and younger adults and pre-adults,” he said. “That’s scary.”
The problem is made somewhat more difficult to address by some well intended regulations.
According to Burris, the most common law enforcement encounter with heroin is through an overdose, which comes with medical immunity. That hopefully means a higher chance of calling 911, but doesn’t give the court system the opportunity to get involved or mandate treatment.
“You don’t go kick the habit on your own,” Burris said.
Luckily, voluntary treatment is on the rise. Organizations like Mind Springs Health and Jaywalker Lodge provide programs locally, and A Way Out helps pair patients with programs and sometimes pay for treatment.
“Treatment is expensive, and a lot of people in active addiction don’t have the resources because it all goes to the addiction,” said Lenny Beaulieu, director for outpatient services at the Jaywalker Lodge and clinical consultant for A Way Out. “The good news is that despite the fact that heroin use is on the rise around the country and in the valley, there’s a lot of resources to address that addiction.”
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