Heroin a cheap, trendy fix for South Sound youths

Officials have a growing battle on their hands as funding to fight the problem shrinks

Staff writerNovember 24, 2013 

  • SEIZURES TRIPLE

    Local heroin seizures more than tripled in 2012 from 2011:

    Year: Grams

    2011: 1,004

    2012: 3,885

    2013: 3,230*

    * Based on 1,884 grams seized through July.
    Source: Thurston County Narcotics Task Force

A drug investigation last year took Thurston County narcotics detectives from Tacoma to the Lucky Eagle Casino in Rochester and then to another casino in Shelton.

Specifically, to a hotel room at Little Creek Casino at 6 a.m. Nov. 28.

The lead detective had reason to believe he might find a kilogram of heroin in the room. He knocked on the door and a woman answered, cracking the door just a sliver.

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He flashed his badge and heard a toilet flushing from inside.

“I heard a swishing sound,” the detective said later. “I was born at night, but not last night.”

The man detectives were looking for was in the bathroom, flushing heroin down the toilet. The detectives rushed inside and found a bag of heroin in the half-flushed toilet.

The detectives escorted the 38-year-old felon from Rochester to his car in the casino parking lot. The lead detective said he knew that if the suspect had a kilogram of heroin, he wouldn’t flush it all down the toilet.

“That’s a lot of money,” the detective said.

In the trunk, detectives hit the jackpot. They found a handgun and a safe containing more than a kilogram of heroin with an estimated street value of $16,800.

The multicounty drug investigation led to a bust in which federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents seized 32 pounds of heroin — 28 pounds of which was hidden in the walls of a Lakewood residence.

Though large, did the confiscations do anything to stop the flow of cheap heroin in downtown Olympia in 2013?

Hardly.

“Thurston County’s got a huge heroin problem,” said the task force detective involved in the Nov. 28 bust.

 Olympia Police Department’s Laura Wahl displays a 1/16th-gram packet of Mexican black tar heroin held in the department’s evidence locker. Olympia Police Department’s Laura Wahl displays a 1/16th-gram packet of Mexican black tar heroin held in the department’s evidence locker.

The demand is on the rise especially among 18-to-29-year-olds, who are turning from prescription drugs to heroin, say local and federal law enforcement officials.

“It’s readily available and it’s cheap,” said Capt. Dave Johnson of the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force. “Informants are saying they can buy it at any time.”

Nationally, heroin seizures are skyrocketing, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Seizures at the Southwest border are up 300 percent from 2008 to 2012, from about 487 kilograms in 2008, to just less than 2,000 kilograms in 2012, the agency said.

Police Officer Jeff Herbig, who patrols downtown Olympia by bike, routinely finds discarded needles in back alleyways where users inject either heroin or methamphetamine.

“Heroin is the drug du jour,” Herbig said.

Recent examples of that are easy to find.

In June, a 7-year-old boy found a used hypodermic needle in Bigelow Springs Park on Olympia’s east side. The boy told his mother he’d accidentally pricked his finger on the tip of the needle while handling it. The boy has shown no ill effects from the accident.

In September, staff members at the Olympia Timberland Regional Library downtown had to call police because heroin users were turning its public bathrooms into a shooting gallery.

In May, police arrested a 26-year-old heroin addict on suspicion of stealing a boat at Swantown Marina. Officers said they found the suspect shooting up alongside a trash bin in an alley downtown.

Heroin addiction can be a driving motivation for all kinds of property crimes, Police Sgt. Aaron Jelcick said.

“Opiate addiction is overwhelming,” he said. “You need to use every day, otherwise you get sick. It is a very strong driving force for people to go out and commit crimes and do other things they would not normally do.”

In Washington, heroin is the most abused drug among 18-to-29-year-olds, according to a 2013 study by University of Washington research scientist Caleb Banta-Green.

“First-time admissions to treatment indicate that the growth in heroin abuse is driven by young adults, primarily outside of the Seattle metro area, who started out abusing prescription painkillers,” the study states.

Thurston County juvenile prosecutor Wayne Graham said there has been an alarming increase in the number of young people who use heroin.

“Heroin’s lost its stigma for this younger generation and they’re not afraid of it,” Graham said. “It freaks me out.”

In downtown Olympia, users can spend as little as $10 on heroin a day to avoid the withdrawal symptoms that take hold after they stop taking the drug, said Chris Johnson, Thurston County’s co-occurring disorders intensive case manager.

Heroin bought in Olympia is coming from Tacoma and Pierce County, where it is sold by drug trafficking organizations controlled by Mexican nationals, said Capt. Johnson of Thurston County’s drug task force.

Because heroin is so addictive, physically as well as psychologically, it drives crimes, such as residential burglary and identity theft throughout Thurston County, he added.

The heroin market has grown after one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the United States, Purdue Pharma, changed the composition of OxyContin in August 2010, making it almost impossible to crush.

Crushing OxyContin or other painkillers derived from synthetic opioids makes them more potent when snorted or smoked, allowing users to achieve a high similar to heroin.

Black-market oxycodone pills are difficult to find and expensive — drug abusers will pay as much as $70 for one 70-milligram pill.

The high price and relative scarcity of crushable oxycodone pills and other prescription opiates has made heroin an attractive option for drug abusers because it is quick-acting, cheap and produces a more intense high.

A 2013 study by Purdue found a 42 percent increase in exposures to heroin in hospitals across the United States since the 2010 reformulation of OxyContin.

Prescription opiates can be a gateway to heroin, and Purdue’s reformulation of OxyContin has contributed to the increase in heroin use among young people, said Matthew Barnes, special agent in charge for the Seattle bureau of the DEA.

Discarded hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia can be found along the rail tracks near the Jefferson Street tunnel. Discarded hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia can be found along the rail tracks near the Jefferson Street tunnel.

As prescription opiate abuse has decreased in recent years, heroin use has gone up, said Barnes, whose DEA region includes Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska.

His agents’ enforcement efforts are centered on stopping the flow of illegal heroin from reaching the streets. He said the rise in heroin use now seen in Washington likely will reach Idaho in 2014.

“We consider the heroin trafficking issue public enemy No. 1 in the state of Washington,” Barnes said.

The 2013 study by the UW’s Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute found abuse of prescription opiates — including Vicodin and OxyContin — tapered off in the state from 2008 to 2010.

As users developed a tolerance to the drugs and they grew more expensive, “they were able to switch over to heroin, because heroin is now widely available,” Banta-Green said.

“And that’s something we’re seeing across the state,” he said.

The study also found opiate-related overdose deaths are on the rise in Thurston County and across Washington.

In Thurston County, there were 12 opiate-related overdose deaths from 2000 to 2002 and 58 from 2009 to 2011, according to the study. Statewide, opiate-related deaths almost doubled between the same time periods, with 931 deaths from 2000 to 2002, and 1,821 from 2009 to 2011.

It is difficult to measure heroin-related overdose deaths specifically, because the drug’s metabolites break down in the body quickly, leaving evidence that could indicate any opiate, including heroin oxycodone, morphine, codeine, hydrocodone or hydromorphine, Banta-Green said.

Despite the danger of fatal overdoses, he said, users find opiate addiction incredibly difficult to overcome.

“It starts off with trying to seek pleasure, or avoid pain, but eventually a person becomes dependent and they actually have to take opiates just to feel normal,” Banta-Green said. “They are unlikely even to feel high anymore but are just trying not to feel sick or go into withdrawal.

“That’s sort of the insidious nature of opiate addiction.”

Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5445
jpawloski@theolympian.com

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