Heroin: Part one of a three-part series

Date Published: 
April 18, 2014

From October 2013 to February 2014 – 5 months – 70 Delawareans’ deaths were attributed to suspected heroin overdose. Their average age was the early 40s.

Talk to any addict and you’ll hear the same thing — it was all about the high. “The high is awesome,” said Andy Price (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), a local 26-year-old who has been drug-free for four months.

Price started using drugs recreationally while attending Indian River High School. During his years of drug use, he experimented with marijuana, cocaine and prescription pills, and eventually moved on to heroin.

“You do one, and you want to try everything else,” he said. “I started out with pills. I did pills after I started smoking pot.”

Price said that, when state and federal agencies started attacking the abuse of prescription medication, he — along with many other addicts — turned to heroin.

“People had a choice to make: we can either spend all this money to try to get pills or we can switch to dope,” he said. “Heroin is cheaper, less of it gets you higher, and it’s not a once-a-month thing.”

Heroin fills the prescription pill void

Due to stringent federal and state laws that make it difficult for pills to be readily available, addicts have turned to other drugs to feed their habits, and one in particular — heroin.

“We’re seeing it statewide,” said Sgt. Paul Shavack of the Delaware State Police. “It’s one of the top street drugs that we are seeing, and we’re seeing it more now.”

Law enforcement officials, when asked about an increase in heroin use report that, if they haven’t seen it in their immediate back yard, they’ve noticed it in neighboring communities.

“We’re all seeing it. It’s so cheap, and it’s easier to get than the pills right now,” said Selbyville Police Chief Scott Collins, adding that his department began to see a dramatic increase at the end of the summer of 2012. “Before, if you got one or two a year, that would be something. Heroin just wasn’t something we saw a lot of.”

Ocean View Police Chief Ken McLaughlin said that, during much of his 25-year law enforcement career, heroin has been a drug one would rarely come across.

“I had only actually seen or been involved in one or two heroin arrests in the first 22 years of my career here in Sussex County,” he said. “I personally always considered that to be a drug associated with major metropolitan areas, like Baltimore or New York City. It wasn’t something that we saw here in our resort community.

“It was unusual in this part of the county five years ago to come across heroin and make an arrest,” he noted. “Now it’s commonplace. I personally am very shocked at the number of cases we hear about in Sussex County and am saddened by it. I hope it’s not a trend that stays with us.”

McLaughlin said that, even though law enforcement agencies were able to react and respond to the prescription pill epidemic, few were prepared for heroin to take over.

“Especially down here in coastal Sussex… Even though we knew we had a big problem with prescription drugs, we just weren’t prepared for heroin to take its place.”

And the problem is not isolated to Delaware. Sgt. Nate Passwaters of the Worcester County (Md.) Criminal Enforcement Team said that county had had a large increase in cases involving prescription drugs in 2010 and 2011, which decreased following an aggressive campaign to reduce the illegal use of prescription medications and raise awareness of the danger involved.

“When those cases began to decline, we saw an influx of heroin-related investigations,” he said. “Our jurisdiction is similar to many other jurisdictions, where we’re all dealing with kind of the same influx. It seems like the whole Mid-Atlantic region has had this influx.”

In December of 2012, the Ocean City (Md.) Police Department had a more than 500 percent increase in heroin incidents compared to the previous year, according to OCPD PFC Mike Levy.

“It’s a growing problem,” Levy said.

Ocean View Town Councilman Geoff Christ said at a March town council workshop that, as a pharmacist, he has seen the drug problem evolve.

“In my professional career, I have seen a dramatic decrease in the amount of prescription pill abuse,” he said. “I’ve also been reading in my professional journals and also major news sources… The pill addicts didn’t go away — the pills just went away. The majority of people addicted to the pills went from pills to heroin.

“The heroin problem in this area is staggering. I see it at work… Even to the point where, at my last rotation at work, I found a bag of heroin on the floor in my pharmacy, by the counter, that fell out of someone’s pocket.”

According to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), heroin use has been rising since 2007, growing from 373,000 yearly users to 669,000 in 2012. Heroin overdose-related deaths have also gone up, increasing 45 percent from 2006 to 2010, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Low cost makes addiction cheap

According to law enforcement officials, the street price of a single bag of heroin can be as little as $5 or $10. A single prescription pill could cost $30 to $40.

“Even though this greater vigilance for prescription drugs is a positive, the underlying effect may be driving drug users to heroin, because it’s cheaper,” said Shavack.

“It’s definitely become the drug of choice. It’s easy to get, and relatively cheap,” said Collins.

According to the DEA, heroin is a highly addictive and rapidly acting opiate. It is processed from morphine, which is naturally extracted from poppy plants.

“That’s basically what these prescription drugs are — synthetic heroin. It’s all sort of the same thing if you do the chemical analysis,” Frankford Police Chief Bill Dudley explained. “The problem is, with heroin, there’s no time release. So whatever you ingest, inject, get it into your system — it’s almost an immediate reaction.”

But where is the supply coming from?

Shavack said that, through investigatory channels and discussions with the DEA, it appears the heroin supply is coming from Afghanistan into the U.S. Once in the States, the drug makes its way to Delaware from the surrounding metropolitan areas.

“Being Delaware, we’re right in the middle — we have I-95. What we see is a lot of it is coming from the bigger cities, Baltimore, Philadelphia,” he said. “The supply is coming from there into the Delaware area—we’re seeing the influx from there.”

“Most of our heroin is coming out of Philadelphia,” added Passwaters.

Collins said that Selbyville’s influx appears to come from Salisbury and Philadelphia.

“It is so widespread — you may have one person who is a distributer, and he may be distributing 20 bags a day. His source may be delivering 500 or 600 bags,” said Dudley. “It’s like a spider web — you have one person in the middle, and it spreads itself out. Getting to that one person in the middle sometimes is a little more difficult than getting the little ones that have branched out.”

Users can snort, smoke or inject heroin in order to obtain their high. It is commonly sold as white powder in small bags but is often not pure. Rather, it is “cut” with another substance, such as sugar, starch or other drugs.

OVPD Capt. Heath Hall said that those concerned that a loved one is abusing heroin should look for cotton balls, cotton-less Q-tips or cigarettes whose filters have been removed — all of which are used to filter the drug before it is injected.

There is also black tar heroin, which can be sticky, like roofing tar, or hard, like coal. The tar can be molded around an object, where it hardens, so as to camouflage it. When users want to get high, they can simply scrape some of the tar off the object, and heat, filter and inject it.

No one is safe

One concerning aspect of the heroin surge is that it appears that heroin knows no bounds.

“It’s like a lot of drugs — it runs the gamut. You really can’t say there’s one particular group,” said McLaughlin. “The demographics are across the board.”

“A lot of times, with the prescription drugs, I’ve seen most drug users… they start out as good people,” said Hall. “They have an accident, they get hurt, and the doctor prescribes them a painkiller. The next thing, they don’t think they can function without it. Then it just graduates to other things.

“A lot of people we’re seeing it with are typical middle-class folks… It’s really sad,” Hall added.

Passwaters said that people of all ages appear to be using the drug, as well.

“I think it’s real important to note that we’re even seeing some juveniles using heroin,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what race, socio-economic background you’re from — heroin affects the entire spectrum.”

The Rev. Kim Tephabock, pastor at Dagsboro Church of God and director of the local program Unite Sussex, said he has seen an increase in heroin abuse and concerns, just in conversations with people whose lives have been directly or indirectly affected by the abuse.

“It seems to be something that some of the younger people are experimenting with, unfortunately,” said Tephabock. “I hate to see anybody of any age encountering drug-abuse issues, but it’s extra concerning when you see vulnerable people who are still in their formative years experiencing it.”

Tephabock said that drug abuse affects a “very broad slice of the community.”

“I’m seeing it in everyone — from businessmen to farmers, to the unemployed. It’s a broad spectrum of people who are affected by drug issues. It’s a much broader slice of the community… Sometimes it’s surprising to some people who aren’t aware of what types of people are struggling with addiction issues,” he said. “I have not yet seen a segment of the community that is free from it, in terms of career, occupation, social setting.”

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2012 approximately 669,000 Americans reported using heroin in the past year — a number that has been on the rise since 2007.

“The number of people using heroin is unacceptably high, with 156,000 people starting heroin use in 2012 — nearly double the number of people in 2006 (90,000),” reported the National Institute on Drug Abuse in February. The NIDA reported that the greatest increase in heroin use across the country is seen in young adults ages 18 to 25.

In Delaware, the Delaware Department of Health & Social Services (DHSS) has been working with other state agencies to collect data on the growing epidemic.

“We are seeing a great increase,” said Jill Fredel, director of communications for DHSS. “We’ve really been trying to track it. We really wanted to try to get a better handle on it.”

Preliminary data collected for 2013 shows that more than 140 Delawareans died of a suspected heroin overdose last year.

In just the five months from October of 2013 to February of 2014, 70 Delawareans died of a suspected heroin overdose — with 60 percent of them living in New Castle County, 20 percent in Sussex County and 16 percent in Kent County, and 4 percent of unknown residence.

Of those 70 deaths, 60 percent of the people were male, 66 percent were Caucasian, 24 percent were African-American and 6 percent were Hispanic.

The average age of the 70 Delawareans who died from a suspected overdose was in the early 40s.

“It’s different than what a lot of people would expect,” Fredel added.

With heroin comes crime

According to the Delaware State Police, in 2011 there were a total of 898 heroin-related investigations in the state. In 2012 there were 1,496 — a 66 percent increase. And, in 2013, there were a total of 2,525 investigations — a 68 percent increase from the previous year.

The increase has occurred in all three Delaware counties. In 2012, there were 304 heroin-related investigations in Sussex County. Last year, there were 517 — a 70 percent increase. In 2012, Kent County had a total of 216 heroin-related investigations, and 486 in 2013 — a 125 percent increase in one year. In 2012, there were 976 heroin-related investigations in New Castle County. In 2013, there were 1,522 — a 56 percent increase.

Many officials believe that a great deal of the area’s crime — be it burglaries, street robberies or property thefts — is being committed by addicts looking to support their drug habits.

“What the user wants is to get to their next hit of heroin, because the addiction is strong. The items they seek — electronics, jewelry — can be turned quickly to cash, to get your next hit of heroin,” said Passwaters. “We see it significantly around the state, too. They’ll do anything to get that next hit.”

Lt. William Sullivan of the Rehoboth Beach Police Department said that, in his experience, property crimes — especially burglaries — always point back to feeding a drug habit.

“I have not seen any burglaries that have come back to anything but heroin or pill addiction,” he said. “It’s not like they’re going out and stealing flat-screen TVs to get money to buy food or something. It’s always to feed a drug habit.”

Dudley, who has had a 40-year career in law enforcement, said that he’s never seen so many home invasions in Sussex County.

“It’s definitely a direct link, a direct cause of crime. People are going to go out and steal, commit crimes in order to get the money so they can continue to get the drugs,” he said. “No matter where you are, no matter how big of a department you are, even if you don’t have drugs in your town, the repercussions of it might affect your town, because people may be coming through, stealing, breaking into houses, in order to acquire the money that’s required to fund their drug habit.”

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell addressed the link between drug abuse and crime in his State of the State address in January.

“Much crime is committed by people with substance-abuse problems,” he said. “Seventy-one percent of men arrested in 10 U.S. cities in 2011 tested positive for an illegal substance.”

In next week’s Coastal Point: a personal look at how heroin can affect personal relationships.