By Polly Keary, Editor
Ten years ago, David Anderson hardly ever saw a heroin addict.
Today, he’s surrounded by them.
Anderson, Program Manager at Valley General Hospital’s Recovery Center, a leading provider of chemical dependency treatment in Snohomish County, said that heroin use has risen sharply over the last decade.
Heroin has become a very popular drug in East Snohomish County, part of a trend seen throughout the United States. And addiction is growing most rapidly among the young.
Drugs trend from meth to opiates
Ten years ago, the war on drugs was waged primarily on meth.
But since 2004, the use of the drug has trended sharply down, due in part to restrictions on the sale of the precursor ingredients.
In 2004, there were 954 incidents involving meth labs, including arrests and discovery of dumpsites in Washington. But in 2006, there were 336 such incidents, and 127 in 2008. By 2011, only 36 incidents were reported in the state, and in 2012, there were a total of just eight.
As meth manufacture and use waned, however, drug use itself merely trended in a new direction. Instead of stimulants, users increasingly sought opiates.
“At first it was pain medication,” said Anderson. “But that was quite expensive.”
OxyContin, a semi-synthetic narcotic derived in part from poppies, was patented in 1995, and by 2005, its use had skyrocketed.
“Up until about 10 years ago, I’d never seen a youth with an opiate problem,” said Anderson, who for years ran a drug and alcohol information class at the Denny Youth Center in Everett for kids who had been busted for drugs.
But then he started hearing kids talk about “beans.”
“That’s was OxyContin was called,” he said. “And the numbers started going up and up. I had people in my class who were smoking it. It was over-the-counter so it was ‘clean,’ and it became all the rage.”
At first called “Hillbilly Heroin” because of the ease with which it was snorted, it quickly priced itself out of the market of most people one would describe as hillbillies; or, for that matter, most anyone else.
“It used to cost about a buck a milligram and a popular pill was an 80 milligram tablet,” said Anderson. “So it would range from $60-$80 per tablet, and people were using three to five of them a day. You can do the math. How did people pay for that?”
Some stole, some sold it themselves, and some ran through all their savings and possessions.
Some just turned to a cheaper high.
“Heroin is a lot cheaper,” said Anderson. “It costs people about $60-$80 per day.”
Although the vast majority of the heroin used in the world comes from Afghanistan, most of the heroin used in Snohomish County is from Mexico, said Patric Slack, Commander of the Snohomish County Regional Drug and Gang Task Force.
“We deal with black tar,” he said. “You have China White from Afghanistan or China, but I’ve never seen it here.”
Black tar is so named because it is poorly refined heroin that often looks like tar. Unlike the highly refined, light-colored powdered heroin from Asia, it can be made without much in the way of lab equipment or expensive chemicals.
Black tar heroin is therefore cheaper than other forms of the drug, making it the most commonly used form of heroin in the United States and particularly on the West Coast due to its proximity to Mexico and Central America, where most of it is made.
Because of its texture, black tar isn’t snorted as are more pure forms. Users instead sometimes dissolve it in water and put it in empty eye-dropper bottles, then squirt it into their noses. They also frequently smoke it by setting some on top of a piece of foil, then heating it and inhaling the smoke through a short tube.
And, of course, it’s easy to inject.
Since 2007, heroin use has almost doubled nationwide, according to a 2012 government survey.
At Valley General Hospital’s Recovery Center, heroin addiction has become nearly ubiquitous.
“It’s the number one offender,” said Anderson, who said more than half of the people who arrive for treatment report using heroin.
And they are arriving younger than ever before; a University of Washington study released in June showed that heroin use was rising dramatically in those under 30.
And, while heroin has long been a problem most associated with urban areas, the UW study showed that the regions with the highest rates of evidence of heroin per capita are now less populated areas of the state, including Clallum and Clark counties to the south, and Whatcom and Snohomish counties to the north of the Seattle metropolis.
Implications for communities
Reports of an increase in heroin use in Monroe is anecdotal, but there’s little hard data to support it, said Deputy Chief of Police Ken Ginnard.
“Anecdotally, we believe it’s on the uptick, but I don’t think we’ve seen an uptick in arrests,” he said. “Word on the street is that it’s on the rise.”
That’s true at the county level, too, said Slack.
County drug enforcement workers are hearing from informants that they know people who are using heroin.
And police are getting reports from citizens about finding used needles.
“We still get calls about fast traffic going in and out of a house, and short stays, but the addendum now is, ‘I’ve got needles in my yard,’” said Slack.
Aside from the sharp rise in heroin addiction reported at treatment centers, though, heroin isn’t resulting in a dramatic strain on law enforcement resources; unlike meth, there aren’t labs to raid and dumpsites to clean up.
But there are certain heroin-specific risks specific to both addicts and officers associated with arrests.
Officers can encounter used needles, which can carry HIV and other blood-borne illnesses.
“We do our standard line: ‘I need to pat you down, you got guns, knives, bombs or needles?’ And they lie,” said Slack. “So you wind up having to do the best job you can. You don’t stick your hand under a seat cushion and slide your hand along, I’ll tell you that.”
And addicts who wind up in jail can get “dope-sick,” or go into heroin withdrawal.
“When we are going to do a large heroin roundup, we take the time to get a hold of the jail so they can prepare,” Slack said. “Heroin detox is not a pretty sight. Some people who have used a lot of drugs, they become a medical nightmare.”
One area in which a rise in heroin addiction might be impacting crime is in property crime.
Some studies have shown that certain drugs are closely associated with certain kinds of crime. A 1985 study of crack cocaine users found that crack addicts were more likely to engage in shoplifting and fencing stolen goods than were heroin users. They were also markedly more likely to be violent.
Conversely, heroin users have tended to turn to property crime to get money; a 10-year study of heroin users found that when they were at the peak of their addiction, their level of property crime was six times higher than when they weren’t using.
“Researchers…have found heroin users to be over-represented in property crimes (in terms of their proportion to the total population studied) and under-represented in crimes against the person,” wrote researcher Chris Allen in a 2007 British study on crime and drugs.
“The person who is an addict will lie, cheat, steal, even kill sometimes to get money,” said Slack. “You see the home invasions we have, or the cell phone robberies, I’m sure that they are all tied.”
“Property crime goes up,” added Ginnard of the Monroe Police. “We are tracking several things about where to put officers and I’m tracking vehicle prowls and auto thefts and those are on the rise.”
Kicking the habit
Heroin use has cycled up and down over several decades, and over the last year, it seems to have leveled off in the county, according to treatment professionals.
Already, there is evidence to suggest that a new meth-making process called “shake and bake,” in which meth can be made from common ingredients in about 15 minutes, could lead to a new resurgence in meth use.
And while OxyContin was reformulated in 2010 to make it harder to snort or smoke, the recent expiration of the patent on the old formula could mean new generic versions will soon be available.
But for now, Slack said that law enforcement and treatment remain the best strategies for combating heroin use.
Slack was a pioneer in the use of drug court to address people convicted of drug related crimes. In exchange for reductions in their sentences, some qualifying offenders can take a months-long, rigorous treatment option involving court, treatment and law enforcement professionals.
Results are striking; nationwide, 70 percent of the seriously-addicted people who voluntarily take drug court complete it in about a year, and 75 percent of them do not offend again.
That means that a graduate of a drug court program is half as likely to get in trouble again than is someone getting out of prison, and long-range studies have shown those effects last as long as 14 years.
“I think the world of drug court,” said Slack, who worked with drug court for a year himself. ”I think it’s probably the brightest light at the end of the tunnel.”
Along with that, Slack said, the whole system of law enforcement and drug education needs an overhaul.
Kids need to see the harsh realities of drug abuse, not sanitized education such as that involving attractive former users. And although drug addiction may appear to be a victimless crime, people need to recognize that drugs are a factor in about 85 percent of crimes that do have victims, he said.
“We’ve got to hold the line. We’ve got to hold people accountable,” he said. “And we have to do a better job of education.”
An addict explains why heroin is so hard to quit
One former heroin addict, now in recovery and working in the Sky Valley, shares the reality of addiction as she experienced it.
The beauty of heroin addiction, the part that never completely leaves me no matter how long I’m sober, is its simplicity. When you’re a junkie, your world is entirely black and white, and everything is dependent on whether you are sick or well. There are no feelings; there are no accomplishments, no successes and no failures. There is no happy and there is no sad because those things don’t matter at all. When you’re an addict, you’re either sick or you’re well. And if you’re sick, there is an immediate solution which will always work with an absolute 100 percent certainty: do more drugs.
You can be laying there, sweating, freezing cold, sick to your stomach, with your nose running down your face and it feels like the skin is about to crawl off your body. You have no energy, and walking across a room is complete agony. But get a little bit of dope in you and all of that goes away, guaranteed. Better than antidepressants, better than counselors and doctors and friends. With dope it’s a sure thing. There is no “maybe this will work and maybe it won’t.” If you’re sick, and you shoot some dope, you will always feel better. It’s far less complicated than real life.
I guess that’s why it’s just so hard to quit because going through the hell of withdrawal doesn’t make sense when your whole body is screaming at you, and you know exactly how to fix it. It becomes habitual, then it becomes second nature, and eventually, it becomes intrinsic. Pretty soon you have no idea how you could go back to living a normal life because everything in life is so overwhelmingly challenging and complicated.