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HEROIN | It’s cheap, available, lethal and on the rise on Whidbey

Detective Carl Seim with the Oak Harbor Police Department holds more than 74 grams of black-tar heroin he seized from a drug dealer. He said it’s worth about $5,000. - Jessie Stensland / The Record
Detective Carl Seim with the Oak Harbor Police Department holds more than 74 grams of black-tar heroin he seized from a drug dealer. He said it’s worth about $5,000.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / The Record

Langley Police Chief Dave Marks tore his Achilles tendon while chasing a heroin addict through the woods last year.

For the veteran officer, the man is hard to forget — he’s had to chase him down more times than he can remember. Last week, the chief noticed the all-too-familiar face standing on Cascade Avenue and tackled him behind The South Whidbey Commons; he found four syringes in his pockets.

“He needed to get a hit so bad, he stopped while I was chasing him,” Marks said. “I can’t prove that, but I’m 90 percent sure that’s what happened.”

Such is the power of heroin.

Once considered a drug for rock stars and hardcore users, heroin has gained a troubling prominence on Whidbey Island, as it has in many communities across the nation.

Afflicting the young and old, poor and successful, the drug has police and community leaders from Clinton to Oak Harbor worried and scratching their heads trying to figure how to address the growing problem.

A powerful drug

While heroin may not be as popular — or perhaps as destructive — as methamphetamine, Detective Carl Seim with the Oak Harbor Police Department worries that the relatively inexpensive, but powerful high from black-tar heroin is making it a plague on the community.

And the high is powerful.

Seim, the department’s drug detective, said he’s heard that paramedics sometimes respond to overdoses to find people unconscious with hypodermic needles still sticking in their arms.

The paramedics administer an opioid antagonist drug like Naloxone, but the users don’t tend to appreciate the intervention.

“Usually they get really mad because it will ruin their high,” he said.

Zachary Lively, drug court coordinator for Island County Juvenile and Family Court Services, said he’s seen a definite increase in the number of participants who have used opiates, including both prescription pills and heroin. He said opiate abuse “is making an alarming upward trend and will surpass meth if the arc continues.”

Equally troubling, he said, is the age of the users.

“It used to be an older person’s drug, but now we’re seeing young people — 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds — who are using,” Lively said.

According to Marks, heroin use isn’t just hitting island youth, but is affecting the ranks of the influential as well. Business owners, community leaders — more are struggling than many think.

“I think a lot of people would be surprised to know the people who are hooked on it,” Marks said.

Heroin’s ubiquity

Officials attending an Island County Law and Justice Council meeting earlier this year offered a startling assessment of the ubiquity of heroin on Whidbey Island, including stories of students on South Whidbey commonly using the drug at parties.

Prosecutor Greg Banks has heard stories about the rise of heroin from police and treatment providers. He said he’s also personally aware of several young people from his soccer coaching days on South Whidbey who are now in their early 20s and abusing heroin.

“It was stunning to me,” he said. “These were kids from stable families. I watched them grow up, by all outward appearance, in a fairly normal way.”

This week the council agreed to form a subcommittee, the Island County Substance Abuse Coalition, following a presentation by Langley Mayor Fred McCarthy. The mayor believes the problem is no greater on Whidbey Island than it is in other areas of Western Washington, but that the effects are felt more keenly in small rural communities like Island County.

It’s especially true when the drug begins to make its way into schools, and McCarthy says it is.

“I’m aware this an issue that’s touching the lives of secondary school students,” McCarthy said.

The mayor is optimistic the coalition will ultimately lead to solutions, but its first task is to better educate community leaders about the scope of the problem.

A clear trend

It’s difficult to find statistics that give a meaningful picture of current heroin usage in the community; in fact, many officials say the lack of hard data makes it more difficult to respond to the perceived problem, though state and national statistics show a clear trend of increased heroin use.

Banks said the number of heroin trafficking and heroin possession cases his office handles are still relatively small and it’s therefore hard to demonstrate a trend. Last year, for example, the office received 17 heroin possession cases.

Island County Public Health reported in the Healthy Youth Survey that the number of high school students who admit to using heroin has waxed and waned in recent years. The report states that 2.8 percent of 12th graders in the county reported in 2006 that they had used heroin. The statistics increased to 5.3 percent in 2008, dropped to 3.1 percent in 2010 and increased again to 5.2 percent in 2012.

A 2013 University of Washington study shows that the rate of police drug evidence testing positive for heroin skyrocketed 16-fold in a decade.

During 2001-02, only 1.3 percent of evidence was heroin; it increased to 20.9 percent in the years 2011-12.

The number of hospitalizations and deaths from opiate-related overdoses in Island County spiked in 2012. The 2013 data is currently not available.

Washington State Department of Health reports that a total of 23 people in the county were hospitalized for opiate-related overdoses in 2012, as compared to seven a decade earlier. Twelve people died from opiate-related overdoses in 2012, as compared to three people in 2002.

Island County Coroner Robert Bishop, however, attributes the majority of opiate-related deaths to prescription medications, such as oxycodone.

Bishop said he’s seen little, if any, increase in heroin-related deaths.

About a quarter of participants in drug court in recent years have been opiate abusers, Lively said, but that includes both heroin and pills.

There’s a strong connection between prescription drug abuse and heroin, however, said Seim. From speaking with users, he said he learned that many of them start out by getting hooked on pills. Some of them have turned to heroin because the formula for prescription opiates has changed, making it more difficult for abusers to break them down to inject or otherwise abuse.

In addition, heroin is much cheaper than pills.

Marks agreed, saying many get hooked not because of poverty, but because heroin is a cheap painkiller. People recovering from a difficult surgery, for example, will turn to it because it’s an affordable alternative to expensive prescription medications that can be harder to acquire.

Where it’s from

A 27-year-old North Whidbey man, who asked not to be identified, describes himself as being part of the drug scene. He said heroin started showing up on Whidbey Island in 2010 and has become “an epidemic.” He said $20 can buy enough heroin to get two people high “for a day and a half.”

While heroin is very addictive, the man said the worst part is withdrawal, which he describes as a nearly unbearable combination of nausea, diarrhea, agitation, sleeplessness and other side effects.

Seim said that, as far as he knows, the heroin on the island is all black-tar, which comes in brownish, vinegary-smelling chunks.

The vast majority of the raw material for heroin comes from Afghanistan poppy fields, according to the federal government.

The heroin on Whidbey Island likely comes from Mexico, where the Afghanistan opium is turned into the more refined product, Seim said.

How it’s getting on the island, however, is not certain. According to Marks, it could be coming from Everett or Bellingham.

“I think the bad thing is we really don’t know,” Marks said. “We’re behind the curve here.”

Seim advises parents to be aware that pieces of aluminum foil, particularly those criss-crossed with odd-looking line patterns, are one sign that someone may be using heroin.

People who smoke heroin, said Seim, often mix it with Coca-Cola that has been heated to a syrup; this sweetens the bitter taste of the drug. The melted concoction is poured in lines on tin foil. The lines are heated with a lighter from below and the smoke is inhaled.

Heroin can also be heated into a liquid and injected with a syringe. Seim said addicts talk about “chasing the high” from the first, euphoric time they use.

“Teenagers and young people don’t understand the consequences of heroin and meth,” he said, “and how it can ruin your life.”

Treatment is key

As addictive and destructive as heroin is, there is hope — and help. Island County Superior Court, for example, has drug courts for both juveniles and adults.

The participants are those who have committed non-violent crimes. They must acquiesce to a tough regimen of drug testing, therapy and supervision. In exchange, the charges against them will be dropped if they graduate.

The offenders tend to have serious drug problems and the supervision is rigorous, so it’s remarkable that 53 percent of both juveniles and adults have graduated. Lively notes that opiate addiction has the highest rates of relapse, failure of long-term recovery and overdose deaths.

Historically, drug courts are successful at significantly lowering recidivism rates, according to Andrew Somers, assistant court administrator.

“Research across the board has shown that when you pair treatment with consequences, you have a much greater success rate,” he said.

Before he was a drug court coordinator, Lively worked as a community corrections officer for the Department of Corrections and, before that, as a police officer in Mount Vernon.

He said he’s seen the drug problem “from several different angles.”

Both Lively and Somers have decades of experience working with drug users. While they are far from naive — they’ve heard every excuse in the book — they are sympathetic to people who’ve become hooked and believe drug policy should be realistic and practical.

Lively pointed out that addiction “rewires” people’s brains; some people have a physical propensity to addiction. He believes addiction should be treated as a medical disorder.

Somers agrees.

“Access to treatment in the community is critical,” he said.

 

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