A trio of Island County employees from different disciplines will hit the streets next year in search of heroin users and pill takers.
The Island County commissioners agreed to fund a sheriff’s deputy in the 2017 budget who will be solely dedicated to a new outreach program that aims to combat what many people consider an opioid-abuse epidemic in the county, especially on South Whidbey and Camano Island.
It’s not a war on drugs; the intention is not to arrest people. Instead, the deputy will team up with an outreach worker and a public health nurse, two new positions funded by grants.
The goal is to reach out to people dealing with opioid addiction and offer them help — and hope.
Langley Police Chief David Marks said he’s been pushing for just such an outreach program for years and is enthusiastic about the effort. He said his office will be able to help connect outreach professionals to those who need help.
“We need to work together on this,” he said. “The worst thing we can do is nothing.”
The Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute reports deaths from opiates increased by 77 percent in Island County between 2004 and 2013; the rate of admissions to publicly funded treatment in the county increased 524.5 percent in that period.
Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson said the county was able to get a $74,000 grant through the five-county North Sound Behavioral Health Organization for an outreach worker who will focus solely on the opioid-using population.
Amerigroup, a health insurance company, provided a grant of about $20,000 for a part-time public health nurse in a pilot project just for Island County. Johnson said the company wants to understand how “on the ground services” can be delivered to a difficult population.
The outreach team will make contact with people suffering from opioid addiction, build rapport, assess the barriers to treatment, provide information about services and help people navigate the complex treatment and support services, according to the grant request.
Beyond helping individuals, the program also seeks to keep users out of jails and emergency rooms, Johnson said.
The outreach model isn’t unique to Island County, Human Services Director Jackie Henderson said. Snohomish County has a similar program in which social workers are embedded with law enforcement; Island County’s program, however, is solely focused on opioid use while the Snohomish County program is more generalized.
Island County Sheriff Mark Brown said he will assign an experienced deputy to the new position and will hire a patrol deputy to offset the lost position. He wants someone for the outreach effort who knows the community, who the users are and where to find them.
“You wouldn’t want someone who doesn’t know the players, so to speak,” Brown said.
While the outreach program will initially be on South Whidbey and Camano, it will likely expand to the rest of the county if successful, officials said.
While there are no studies to show that there’s more opioid addiction on South Whidbey, as opposed to the rest of the island, the community on the South End has certainly been very vocal about the concern, according to Marks.
The evidence of heroin use can be obvious. Marks asked the Langley City Council earlier this year to close Seawall Park at night after officers found 40 syringes in the park, a hang-out for users after dark. Henderson said the outreach team will visit places where homeless people camp and homes where users congregate.
Other use is more hidden. One of the most surprising things about opioid addiction, said Marks, is the number of functioning addicts in the community. He said many are people who one might not suspect of using heroin.
The common story of addiction has become a cliche, but it often reflects reality: Someone gets addicted to pain pills after a surgery or injury and turns to heroin after getting cut off by a doctor.
Lt. Evan Tingstad with the Island County Sheriff’s Office, who works on South Whidbey, said it seems like heroin has replaced methamphetamine as the drug of choice on the island. It used to be rare to get a call of a heroin overdose, but it’s a different matter nowadays. Ambulance crews carry Narcan, an antidote to heroin that’s used all too often — and with amazingly instant results.
A Clinton man who recently lost his brother to a heroin overdose is leading a petition effort for all first responders on Whidbey to carry Narcan.
Tingstad said he’s also hopeful that the outreach program can help those struggling with addiction. He’s in favor of any new approach. He said the drugs change people’s brains, resetting them to a “new normal.” Kicking the habit isn’t just a question of willpower.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” he said. “We can’t just keep throwing them in jail. When they get out, they’re still addicted.”