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Reports: heroin usage on the rise, increasingly deadly

Chasing Dark is an ongoing series looking at heroin and other types of drug abuse in Keizer.
Chasing Dark is an ongoing series looking at heroin and other types of drug abuse in Keizer.

Of the Keizertimes

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials say usage of heroin and other drugs have reached “epidemic” levels.

In a briefing published in July, researchers found that heroin use more than doubled in adults ages 18 to 25 in the past deacde.

Those findings coincide with trends that Keizer Police Det. Chris Nelson saw in a recent stint as part of a Drug Enforcement Agency task force looking into the problem regionally.

“In the last five to six years, the heroin market has increased in this region. More traffickers are coming in and setting up shop,” said Nelson. “We deterimined that the heroin is coming from Nayarit, Mexico. They grow and manufacture and bring it into the U.S. Mexican trafficking groups establish cells in the different areas and distribute to mid-level dealers. Those mid-level dealers are well-established in this area.”

Nelson said the local dealers the Keizer Police Department arrests for selling heroin and other illicit drugs are most often addicts themselves.

“They’re selling to support their own habits,” Nelson said. “For anyone who is mid-level or higher up the chain, selling is usually just a business model, a way to make money.”

How it works

Heroin is synthesized from morphine, which is extracted from the seed pod of the Asian opium poppy plant, and often appears as a white or brown powder or a black, tacky substance commonly know as “black tar.” It is most often injected, but it can also be smoked or snorted.
After intravenous use, according to a report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the drug enters the brain and binds to opiod receptors that control perception of pain and reward. Users most commonly reported “a surge of euphoria accompanied by dry mouth, a warm flushing of the skin, heaviness of the extremities, and clouded mental functioning.”

While those sensations are what the addicted are chasing, the drug comes with a boatload of risks. Opiod receptors in the brain stem control automatic life processes like respiration, arousal and respiration. If an addict overdoses, the euphoria can lead them to the brink of life. An overdose of heroin can cause suppression of breathing that can result in depriving the brain of oxygen – hypoxia – which can lead to coma and possible permanent brain damage.

The human body also rapidly develops a tolerance for and dependency on the drug. A $20-a-day habit can quickly become a $100-a-day habit as the user needs more and more to achieve the same effects. The high generated by heroin becomes the new normal for the user and withdrawal symptoms can set in within 12 hours.

As one local user, Spencer, put it, “I’ve never had a drug that made me physically need it. When you wake up in the morning your first thought is, ‘How can I get a bag? How can I feel better?’ I will lay in bed until I figure something out. I feel like I’m going to die if I can’t get it.”

Spencer, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, was profiled in an earlier segment of KeizertimesChasing Dark series.

Who is at risk

Some of those most at risk of heroin addiction, according to the CDC report, are: those who are addicted to prescription opiod painkillers; people who are addicted to cocaine; people without insurance or enrolled in Medicaid; non-Hispanic whites; males; and those addicted to marijuana and alcohol. A household income of less than $20,000 was also a major factor, according to the CDC report.

The CDC report also found that most addicted to heroin used at least three other drugs, but heroin use is outpacing most other types of narcotics according to a Drug Enforcement Agency report released earlier this year.

The types of heroin entering the market recently are also more pure than their predeccors as little as a decade ago. That could account for an increase in the number of heroin-related deaths the CDC reported.

In 2013, the year of the most recent CDC data, more than 8,200 people in the U.S. died from heroin-related overdoses. That’s nearly quadruple the number of deaths from the same type of overdose as there were in 2002. Overdoses were most common among men and women aged 25 to 44.

Usage on the rise

The Midwest and Northeast led the country in inclining heroin usage, but Western and Southern regions have also seen steep rises.

“Methamphetamine is just as prevalent. The two major ones we see abused are meth and heroin,” said Nelson of local trends.

One of the more common paths to heroin addiction in recent years has been through increased prescriptions of painkillers. Oregon has one of the higher levels of painkiller presciptions in the U.S. It’s estimated that there are between 82 and 95 painkiller prescriptions for every 100 residents in the state, according to a 2014 CDC report.

Once the prescriptions dry up, those addicted turn to heroin as a cheaper, easier-to-obtain alternative. The drug averages about $80 per gram on the West Coast and specifically in the Portland metropolitan area.

“After the 2010 reformulation of the commonly abused prescription opioid OxyContin, which made it difficult to inhale or inject, some people who abused OxyContin migrated to heroin for access to a potent injectable drug,” stated the DEA report.