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Meth and heroin now state's greatest drug threat

Heroin surpasses marijuana on 2014 ranking; meth contributes most to violent crimes

By Amy Randall-Vandenburg
For nearly a decade, methamphetamine and marijuana shared the title of Washington’s greatest drug threat. This year, Northwest HIDTA ranked methamphetamine and heroin as the state’s greatest drug threat. The changing climate of society’s attitude toward marijuana and the increasing population of heroin abusers have changed responses made by task forces to the Northwest HIDTA Threat Assessment Survey (Northwest HIDTA TAS) and altered the rankings.

According to law enforcement officials, methamphetamine contributes more than any other drug to violent crimes in Washington State. Methamphetamine is also ranked as the drug most prevalent in the state, coinciding with a consistent increase in youth treatment admissions for the drug over the past five years. Methamphetamine distributors are known to transport the drug in liquid form for better concealment and then create the finished, solid product in conversion labs
For the first time in Northwest HIDTA history, heroin is ranked as a greater drug threat to Washington than marijuana. Heroin is second only to methamphetamine for its prevalence and association with violent crime and property crimes, according to Northwest HIDTA Initiatives. Heroin use and treatment admissions are climbing among adults and data from the Public Health-Seattle & King County indicates that the majority of needle-exchange participants reported the drug they used most was heroin.

Some of the increase in heroin may be attributed to the reformulation of OxyContin in 2010, public awareness of prescription drug abuse and health care officials being vigilant to prevent doctor-shopping. Many heroin users are former prescription drug addicts looking for a cheaper and easier alternative to get high.

Awareness of the opioid reversal drug naloxone, used to treat overdose victims, is increasing. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved the use of Evzio, a device used to inject a single dose of naloxone in an opioid overdose victim.

Although no longer considered one of the state’s greatest drug threats, marijuana is still the most widely abused, federally illicit substance in Washington. Domestic marijuana is the most prevalent type of cannabis available as local growers continually produce cannabis high in THC.

Based on data from the University of Mississippi, THC levels continue to climb, with the average being more than 13 percent THC in 2012, while the average in 1975 was less than one percent. The increase in THC is one of many concerns regarding marijuana edibles. While the THC content is required to be labeled on the packaging, the serving size is often only a small portion of the package. Butane Hash Oil, (sometimes called Butane Honey Oil or BHO) will be available for sale in retail marijuana stores, but has already grown in popularity. BHO is a wax-like substance, rich in THC. Users heat BHO and inhale its fumes to get an instant high. The production of BHO involves the use of a solvent, usually butane, which is highly flammable. The solvent extracts the THC from the resin in the marijuana plant. There has been an increase in THC extraction explosions in Washington in the past year, resulting in property damage and injuries.

Treatment admissions for cocaine continue to decline, but use of the drug remains widespread throughout the region. Washington continues to be a known transshipment point for cocaine to Alaska and Canada. Diverted pharmaceuticals and other opiates continue to pose a significant risk. Despite the precautions taken to keep opiates such as OxyContin out of the hands of prescription drug abusers, the FDA gave the approval for the production of Zohydro ER. Made by Zogenix, Zohydro ER is a timed-release, pure hydrocodone product, with no tampering safeguards, making it a risk for abuse.

Other dangerous drugs, such as synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones gained nation-wide attention in recent years. Several of the synthetic cannabinoids found in Spice and K2 were temporarily labeled as Schedule I in the Controlled Substances Act. In April of 2013, the DEA permanently placed 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylcathinone (methylone) as a Schedule I drug. Methylone is often found in synthetic cathinones sold as bath salts.

According to Northwest HIDTA Initiatives, MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, commonly known as Ecstasy) is still the most abused of all other dangerous drugs. The majority of MDMA is smuggled into Washington from Canada. The most common methods of money laundering used by Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) in the Northwest HIDTA region continue to be bulk cash smuggling, the use of money service businesses and the Double Exchange. Several DTOs with Washington connections used Bitcoins in the past year as another means to launder money.

Bitcoins are an anonymous and decentralized digital monetary system, making it easy for DTOs to operate unidentified.

One of law enforcement’s greatest challenges in regard to street gangs is keeping track of which gangs are in their jurisdiction, as well as the number and names of members. Allegiance to a particular neighborhood is no longer a steadfast rule, making it difficult to prevent gang violence and crime. Gangs in Washington have expanded their profit margins by diversifying their ways of making money. In addition to drug trafficking, gangs are known to promote prostitution and are often involved in fraud.