If you think heroin use in Thurston County is merely a problem among the homeless in and around downtown Olympia, think again.
Experts say a resurgent heroin crisis is leaving track marks across the state and country, regardless of socioeconomic background.
They also say heroin use is growing most quickly among those 18 to 29 — a demographic that started out abusing prescription painkillers and then turned to heroin as the widely abused prescription drug oxycodone turned scarce or too expensive.
When detectives with the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force made seven heroin arrests as part of a single investigation in March 2012, four of those taken into custody were men 18 to 20 years old living in the Olympia area.
Three of the four came from stable homes and had minimal criminal records.
One of the group — a 20-year-old from man Olympia — died five months later in his parents’ home of an accidental heroin overdose.
“If Satan was real, I would definitely say it was heroin, and Satan’s in Olympia,” said a friend of the 20-year-old, a 22-year-old Olympia woman who attended his funeral last year. “It’s just so sad. I hate waking up every morning to think that one of my friends could die from it.”
The task force’s investigation began when detectives served a search warrant at a Lakewood apartment last year.
The agents seized a cellphone used by a heroin dispatcher for a Mexican drug trafficking organization. Detectives then simply sat by the phone, waiting for the dispatcher’s customers to call in.
When they did, a detective acting as a drug dealer arranged heroin deals with the callers.
Detectives later arrested the seven people in Thurston County on suspicion of arranging to buy heroin on March 22 and March 23, 2012.
They included an 18-year-old Avanti High School student who lives with his parents in Olympia. He was arrested March 23 in Lacey with a 19-year-old University of Washington sophomore from Olympia.
The 18-year-old had sent a text to the dispatcher arranging to buy an ounce of heroin for $300.
The other two arrested — two 20-year-old friends, one from Olympia, the other from Tenino — had set up a deal to buy a half-ounce of heroin for $155. The two arranged to meet with undercover detectives and were arrested when they showed up.
The 20-year-old from Tenino admitted he’d intended to resell the heroin, agents said.
More than 18 months after their arrests, the four young men’s paths provide a stark illustration of the difficulties in overcoming addiction.
The Avanti student enrolled in Thurston County Drug Court. The diversion program gives first-time offenders the chance to wipe their felony records clean, provided they kick their drug habits, remain sober and meet educational and therapeutic benchmarks.
He got his GED certificate and, by all accounts, has been successful in the program and is scheduled to graduate from Drug Court next year.
The boy and his mother declined to comment for this story.
The 19-year-old was enrolled in Drug Court until October, when he was kicked out for failing to comply when he didn’t show up for a urinalysis, court papers state.
After he was expelled from Drug Court, he was convicted of unlawful possession of heroin with intent to distribute and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
His attorney, Saxon Rogers, said the young man no longer attends The UW and no longer uses heroin.
The 20-year-old from Tenino was not offered Drug Court and pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of heroin with intent to distribute. He served a 30-day jail sentence.
His companion, the 20-year-old who later died, was convicted in June 2012 of unlawful possession of heroin and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
He died Aug. 20, 2012, at his parents’ home on Olympia’s east side of an accidental heroin overdose, Coroner Gary Warnock said.
According to the man’s obituary in The Olympian, he left behind his parents, as well as friends and other family, including an older sister who works as a producer for a television station in Seattle.
“He had a gentle soul and big heart, was kind and loyal, and always saw the good in others,” read the obituary. “(He) was passionate about music, was an accomplished guitarist and drummer, and was very creative. He worked as a sound man for the Olympia Jazz festival, and other various events.”
A friend who went to high school with the young man said that among her circle of friends in Olympia, “probably about 10 to 15 people” have tried or become addicted to heroin. They range in age from 16 to 25, she said.
She added that she or her friends would have no problem finding heroin in Olympia.
“Some of them go downtown and ask homeless people if they know how to get it,” she said.
After her friend’s death, she said, other users in her social circle “were really scared,” but many continued to use heroin.
“In Olympia, it’s the culture,” she said. “A lot of young people do get into opiates.”
The young woman said her friend “was such a good person” who helped her out when she went through a breakup.
“He never talked smack about anybody,” she said. “He always knew exactly what to say to make others feel better and he gave the best hugs, anybody will tell you that.”
The dead man’s companion, the 20-year-old from Tenino, recently found himself back in jail.
Police arrested him Oct. 18 in downtown Olympia on an outstanding warrant. He served a jail sentence and was out Nov. 13.
During a recent interview, his mother cried when asked about her son. She said he had been through drug treatment four or five times, but can’t stop using.
He’s no longer welcome in her home, she said, but he never calls anyway because she won’t give him any money.
“Heroin is a horrible, horrible drug,” she said. “I have come to the knowledge that tough love doesn’t fix it. It’s a lifelong battle. … He tried, he really did. I really want him to be better.”