Heroin use, abuse on rise

By Kim Kraushar, Northwest HIDTA/DEA ISC Manager
 & Theresa Blahato, Seattle DEA Intelligence Supervisor

Heroin is readily available and widely abused throughout Washington state, according to reporting from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Seattle Field Division, and the Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA).

The increase in heroin prevalence and use signals changes in trafficking and abuse patterns.

Seizure statistics confirm the increased availability of heroin in the state. Heroin seizures have increased dramatically over the past three years, per law enforcement reporting. For many decades, members of Mexican drug trafficking organizations (MDTOs) have worked as farm laborers or in restaurants, among other businesses. Many MDTOs use Washington (and these businesses) as a base of operations for large-scale heroin and methamphetamine trafficking to other parts of the U.S. as well as for smuggling cocaine to Canada. Washington was one of the first states in the nation to strengthen its laws on commonly-abused pharmaceutical opiates. As a result, diverted opiate prescription prices increased over the past several years and MDTOs moved in to fulfill the demand for lower cost heroin. Heroin use among young adults will remain prevalent as MDTOs continue to entrench their poly-drug operations in the Pacific Northwest.

Northwest HIDTA reporting indicates that heroin trafficking and abuse are an increasing problem in the NW HIDTA jurisdiction. HIDTA reporting shows that many young adults began their use of pharmaceutical opiates such as oxycodone and hydrocodone by raiding family medicine cabinets. Once these young adults developed an addiction and their supplies of drugs dried up, many turned to the black market where Mexican black tar heroin costs considerably less compared to pharmaceuticals. Treatment admissions for all drug categories declined during the period 2009 through 2012, except for heroin.

Treatment data tend to lag by several years as credible indicators of heroin availability and abuse. Still, data show that the rate of deaths associated with the abuse of heroin and/or prescription opiates has nearly doubled during the past decade. Recent data from throughout the state indicate increases in heroin availability, abuse, and the number of overdose deaths, particularly among young adults 18- to 29-years-old. Heroin overdoses (ODs) pose a significant concern for prevention program personnel and for treatment professionals. In the past, some heroin addicts who died as a result of an OD were mostly in their 40s; recently, a number of heroin abusers who died as a result of an overdose were only in their 20s. For some individuals, abuse of prescription opiates (morphine, oxycodone, methadone, etc.) often leads to heroin use. Law enforcement agencies continue to focus on diversion of prescription opiates, through which addicts often evolve to the abuse of heroin as a way to avoid official scrutiny.

Recent data from the University of Washington, Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute (ADAI) indicates increases in heroin availability, abuse, and overdose deaths throughout the state, particularly among young adults 18- to 29-years-old. These increases are significant because of the high risks of overdosing and/or the possibility of contracting infectious diseases often associated with heroin use. A lead researcher for ADAI noted that changes to rules related to prescribing opiates caused decreased availability of diverted prescription pharmaceuticals.

As a result, many individuals who abused prescription pharmaceuticals switched to heroin. According to ADAI, the efforts of Washington state to control diverted pharmaceuticals indicates that strengthening of these laws often result in some unintended effects as well as some effects that were anticipated. The ADAI specifically noted that some high school sophomores have decreased the rate of abuse of prescription opiates, although some members of this group have evolved to the abuse of heroin.

Police drug evidence testing, particularly during calendar years 2011 and 2012, point to dramatic increases in heroin availability. Statewide, the number of pieces of police evidence that tested positive for heroin totaled 842 in 2007, compared to 2,251 in 2012, nearly a three-fold increase. The largest increases occurred outside of metropolitan areas. Rural areas of the state showed the highest rates of heroin evidence collected, per population of 100,000. These areas include the western counties of Clallam and Clark and counties near the British Columbia, Canada, border – Whatcom to Snohomish, which includes San Juan and Island.

(This information was reported in the September 2013, DEA/HIDTA Drug Intelligence Brief entitled: United States: Heroin Overdose Death Rate Increases Among Young Adults in Washington State. For a complete copy of this bulletin, contact Seattle DEA or Northwest HIDTA).