Chasing the Dragon: Heroin Addiction in Oregon

Chasing the Dragon: Heroin Addiction in Oregon

Oregon’s heroin overdose death rates skyrocket while law enforcement, legislation, and health care departments attempt to squash drug trafficking, prescription opioid abuse, and shared needle use.

Heroin Deaths in Oregon

By the end of 2011, 143 people had died from heroin overdose in Oregon, a 59 percent increase from 2010. Once thought to be a problem of the 90s, Oregon’s current heroin overdose death rates prove the issue remains at large.

In 1990, heroin related deaths peaked in Oregon with around 250 incidents. This number gradually declined over the years as methamphetamine gained popularity; however, in 2005, heroin began its comeback due to people seeking a cheap alternative to prescription opioids.

A Cheaper, More Accessible High

Lt. Derek Rodrigues with the Portland Police Bureau’s drugs and vice division attributes the recent rise in heroin use and overdose to the decline in people abusing OxyContin, a prescription opioid. Law enforcement reports indicate that prescription opioid users often switch to heroin because of its availability, inexpensiveness, and more intense high. "A hit of oxy (OxyContin) is hard to get and can go for 30, 40 dollars. But a hit of heroin is only 10 dollars," Rodrigues said. "Same high, cheaper price.”

Undoubtedly, the use of heroin and prescription painkillers are intrinsically related. In 2010, drug companies altered the composition of OxyContin, making it nearly impossible to crush and inhale, an addicts preferred method of abuse. This change occurred right around the beginning of heroin’s rise. Law enforcement officials suggest the new controlled-release formula has created a shortage in supply for addicts seeking the original form of the drug. This, in turn, has allowed for the drastic inflation in OxyContin prices on the street, which has many addicts switching to an inexpensive drug option, heroin.

Mexican Drug Cartels Create a Surplus

The demand for a cheaper and more accessible high has allowed drug cartels to cash in on the heightened heroin demand. Mexican National Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) dominate the movement of black tar heroin into and throughout Oregon.

In 2011, federal data estimated that heroin production in Mexico had increased by more than six-fold between 2005 and 2009. U.S. Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center revealed that Mexican cartels’ ability to produce such an excess supply of heroin has allowed the drug to sell so cheaply. Law enforcement officials suggest that because local distributors pay so little for the drug, there is no need for them to “cut” it with fillers in order to make a profit. Thus, the black tar heroin coming from Mexico proves to be extremely pure and potent.

Purity Leads to Heroin Overdose

Oregon’s state medical examiner, Dr. Karen Gunson, describes the potency of black tar heroin: “When you use it, you have no idea what you’ve got. It could be 20 percent, or 60 percent pure.” The potency attributes to why so many people risk overdosing.

An overdose can kill instantly; however, more often than not, it may be hours before death actually occurs. Dr.Gunson explains that the person might nod off, fall asleep, then begin snoring loudly. The person’s snoring actually indicates that they are in a comatose state. Oftentimes, foam comes out of the person’s nose and mouth.

Combatting an Explosive Heroin Problem

With such a rise in heroin overdose deaths, law enforcement, legislature, and health care departments have considered and developed options for combating the dangerous drug. In order to stop the flow of heroin, law enforcement has heightened their search for drug traffickers and dealers. In 2012, Oregon State Police drug enforcement recorded 296 drug seizures, the most in its history and a 150 percent leap from 2008. It has been speculated that a majority of the confiscation incidents occurs along Interstate-5 due to the easily traveled route from the Mexican border straight through Oregon to Canada.

“When you use it, you have no idea what you’ve got. It could be 20 percent, or 60 percent pure.”

Government’s attempt to reduce heroin use came in 2012, when legislature proposed the House Bill 4022. One measure of the bill would classify people arrested at least three times for heroin possession as mentally ill. In addition, the bill would be set up so the offender could be committed for up to 90 days of inpatient treatment and a year of outpatient treatment. The bill ultimately failed, but other attempts in support of help and sobriety prove successful.

Oregon’s syringe exchange programs (SEPs) attempt to combat the spread of disease among heroin addicts, their families, and the community. According to a 2005 Center for Disease Control Report, the first organized SEPs in the United States were founded in the late 1980s in Oregon, Washington, California, and New York City. Jon Stuen-Parker, a Yale School of Public Health student and former intravenous drug user, became one of the movements earliest and most vocal activists.

Needle exchange supplies.

SEPs provide new, sterile syringes in exchange for used, along with wound care and safer sex supplies. By supplying clean needles, syringe exchange and disposal public health programs are designed to reduce the spread of HIV, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne infections among addicts who inject.

A 2004 World Health Organization policy brief, “Provision of Sterile Injecting Equipment to Reduce HIV Transmission,” compared an 18.6% decrease in the HIV rate in 36 cities with needle exchanges compared to an 8.1% increase in HIV rates in 67 cities without needle exchanges.

In addition to combating disease, the staff also offers risk reduction counseling and referrals to medical care, housing, STD treatment, mental health counseling, and substance abuse treatment.

Some Oregon syringe exchange programs include:

The surge of heroin overdose deaths in Oregon has raised much awareness of the drug’s growing problem. While law enforcement struggles to control Mexican drug traffickers, legislature and public health programs fight to encourage addicts to seek the help they desperately need before it’s too late.

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