Heroin use, overdoses up statewide

Heroin use and related deaths have increased significantly statewide and more than doubling in nine counties during the past decade, especially in people younger than 30, according to a new study released Wednesday.

The study, completed by researchers at the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, found that overdose deaths from heroin or prescription-type opiates more than doubled between 2000 and 2011 in nine counties, most of which are located in Southwest Washington, including Lewis, Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Mason and Thurston counties.

The study found that the largest increases in heroin use and abuse in the state were outside of metropolitan areas, where drug treatment and awareness are the lowest.

For many heroin addicts, their addiction began in their own medicine cabinets with prescription painkillers.

“Prescription drug abuse is a precursor to heroin abuse,” said Sgt. Jim Shannon, who supervises the drug unit for the Centralia Police Department. “No one starts shooting up with the needle.”

Pain killers offer a similar high to heroin, but many falsely assume they are safer than heroin because they are prescribed by a doctor, Shannon said.

“It comes from a nice clean pharmacy,” he said. “It’s not as scary as heroin.”

Heroin, however, is significantly cheaper and, in some circumstances, easier to get, he said. Once people get hooked, and lose access to their supply of pain medication or can no longer afford to buy the pills, they often resort to heroin.

A gram of heroin, which is about the size of a raisin, on average sells for about $10, Shannon said. A gram is usually divided into two to four doses, depending on the user’s tolerance and the strength of the heroin.

One 30-milligram pill of oxycodone, which can be crushed up and smoked, comes with a much higher price tag and can sell on the street for about $30, he said.

As addicts use more heroin or pain pills, their tolerance gets higher, which weakens their central nervous system, he said.

People who fatally overdose on heroin are often found with hypodermic needles still in their arms because death can occur quickly, police say.

“In the drug world, heroin has always been cheap,” said Sgt. Rob Snaza, who supervises the Lewis County Regional Drug Task Force for the sheriff’s office. “But it’s always been considered a dirty drug.”

Heroin, which is frequently produced in Mexico then smuggled into the United States, resembles black tar, and often has a distinct smell.

“It’s not manufactured in a lab,” Snaza said. “It’s manufactured in the foothills of Mexico.”

Snaza said he is not surprised by the study’s findings, adding that he has seen a large increase in the number of heroin users in their 20s, many of whom started with abusing painkillers.

“Now it’s so prevalent in our younger generation,” Snaza said.

In 2012, 64 percent of people entering publicly funded treatment for the first time were heroin users between age 18 and 29, according to the study.

Snaza said the popularity of different drugs comes in spurts. In the early 1990s, the major issue in the area was meth. The abuse of painkillers followed that trend, and now the popularity of heroin is on the rise. Snaza said that despite the increase in heroin, other drugs, such as methamphetamine, are still in demand.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.