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The heroin factor: Unavailability of prescription painkillers is leading to a rise in use

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On June 4, a 27-year-old Lompoc man was found dead inside his home; that same day, a 32-year-old man was found dead inside a Solvang hotel room; and three days later, a 31-year-old Solvang woman was found dead in her home.

Following investigations into all three deaths, officials from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said in a press release that information gathered from the scenes indicated that each person may have died from an overdose of heroin. Pending the outcomes of toxicology reports, investigators aren’t saying that heroin was the cause of death, and police aren’t releasing names.

Santa Barbara County’s experienced strings of similar apparent overdoses in the past. In 2010, The Santa Barbara Independent reported on what was presumed to be five heroin overdoses in a period of three days. The recent spate of deaths in a short period of time parallels a trend across the United States: Heroin use is on the rise, according to both federal and local officials.

In San Luis Obispo County, deaths linked directly to heroin also appear to be on the rise. Data from the county coroner showed that six deaths were specifically attributed to heroin in 2014. That number remained unchanged from the previous year. Between 2011 and 2012 the county saw a total of five deaths directly attributed to heroin.

While the number of deaths directly attributed to heroin in SLO County are low, they only account for overdose deaths where heroin and no other drugs were found in toxicology tests. Far more deaths were attributed to opiates, opioids, methadone, or morphine. According to the SLO County Coroner’s data, 11 deaths were attributed heroin, opiates or opioid prescription medication, morphine, and methadone, either alone or in combination with other drugs in 2014. That’s less than the 16 overdose deaths in 2013, the most deaths of any year between 2010 and 2014.

According to a Drug Enforcement Agency National Heroin Threat Assessment Summary released last April, the number of heroin users in the U.S. increased by 172 percent between 2010 and 2013.

The Midwestern and Northeastern regions of the U.S. experienced the greatest surge in heroin deaths, according to a report issued this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC reported that heroin-related deaths jumped by 11 and four times in each region, respectively, between 2000 and 2013.

Out West, more people are also dying from heroin use. In the same span of time, heroin deaths increased three times in the Western region, according to the CDC.

And it’s no longer confined to minority users in the cities, according to Vijay Rathi, a special agent and public information officer for the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Los Angeles Division. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, heroin was mostly used in urban population, Rathi said, but that’s changed.

“There is no longer a standard type of heroin user anymore,” Rathi said, adding that the spread of heroin followed the prescription drug epidemic.

Why did it follow? There are many reasons, but a lot of it has to do with people who were addicted to prescription painkillers and switched to heroin as those prescribed meds became increasingly unavailable, according to Rathi.

The over-prescription of painkillers by doctors led to droves of people getting addicted to things like oxycodone, he said. Then came years of crackdowns, stings of pain management clinics and illegal dealers by the authorities in an attempt to stop the epidemic.

Rathi said that back in 2010, pharmaceutical companies changed the formula of prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin, to a non-crushable form, which made it harder to abuse, increasing the price while decreasing the availability.

“People were still addicted opioids, and they’re still expensive,” Rathi said. “What do you do? You’re hooked. They don’t have the pills anymore, so they’re resorting to heroin.”

To make matters worse, Rathi said, Mexican drug cartels are recognizing this trend and pumping an ever-increasing supply of cheap, black tar heroin into California, which is the most common type on the West Coast. Rathi said its purity has increased, and it can be bought for as little as $5 per gram.

And heroin’s no longer only injected. It can be smoked and even snorted, Rathi said, adding that the snortable form is becoming more common.

The scariest part, Rathi said, is that the cartels are adding another extremely potent narcotic to the mix—fentanyl—and it can often lead to deadly results. Fentanyl is a synthetic drug similar to heroin, but more powerful than morphine and commonly used to treat patients who are physically tolerant to opiates, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Rathi said an amount of fentanyl equal to a few grains of salt can cause respiratory failure and death.

Erowid, a nonprofit organization that disseminates information on psychoactive plants and chemicals, lists fentanyl as going by street names such as “China White,” “Sublimaze,” or “Lollipop.” It’s often sold as heroin on the street and is known to cause deaths, according to the nonprofit’s website, erowid.org.

“It’s just really, really dangerous stuff,” Rathi said.

 

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness contributed to this report. Contact Staff Writer David Minsky from New Times’ sister paper to the south at dminsky@santamariasun.com.

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