JoAnne Shields has worked with more heroin addicts at the Benton County Health Department in the past 12 months than in her first two years working at the department combined. National heroin use rates have increased over the last several years. In Corvallis, the increase has been definite, though not as dramatic as in other parts of Oregon.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that the number of people who reported using heroin in 2012 had almost doubled from the 2007 figure, at 669,000. Overall drug use rates were highest here in the Western states. Oregon officials reported that heroin-related deaths had increased 59 percent from 2000 to 2011. In addition, a recent study of drug surveillance data reports that while the price of heroin has decreased, its potency is significantly higher than it was at the start of the 1990s.
Heroin Is Back
Corvallis Police Department Captain Dave Henslee reports that there were 30 heroin-related arrests of 25 people in 2013, as opposed to 16 arrests of 14 people in 2009. Most individuals arrested were males in the 18 to 29 age group, which fits with national and state trends. Henslee says that a possible cause for increased heroin use may be the crackdown on local meth production, which has resulted in higher costs to buy meth from Mexico. “Several users have started using heroin due to the increased cost of methamphetamine,” says Henslee. Shields also mentions heroin’s cheapness as a possible cause for increases.
District Attorney Chris Stringer agrees, but points out that heroin is also an issue in other parts of the country that don’t have a meth problem. He says heroin is back, and while “Meth is still ahead, heroin is a close second.” Stringer continues, “More people are using it at the expense of meth. Many people don’t expect heroin to be around here. They think it’s more of a drug from the ‘70s, or that if it’s around, it’s going to be in Eugene or Portland, not here. They think it’ll be meth here,” in Corvallis. Before an uptick over the past five years, he says “Previously we’d seen a Eugene connection. Now it’s more readily available, which would indicate the dealers aren’t just in Eugene anymore.”
Dave Clark, the program coordinator for the Benton County drug court, estimates that probably a quarter of the people in a recent session of the weekly court had been involved with heroin. “We got an influx in the past year,” he explains.
Local Youth Affected
Abuse of prescription painkillers may be fueling increased heroin rates. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that individuals who’ve abused prescription pain killers have a 19 times greater likelihood of trying heroin. Addicts often move to heroin because it costs far less than prescription drugs. Shields says that the clients she works with often started with prescription drugs, as does Lisa Bjornstad, PsyD., the lead counselor at Milestones Family Recovery. Bjornstad says that some heroin users she sees are inhaling the drug, rather than taking it by injection. This makes heroin more accessible to people who might be leery of using a needle.
Bjornstad also reports an increase in total number of heroin users, and says she is seeing a younger age range. She says that her clients don’t fit the popular stereotype of drug addicts. Users are often middle-class people in their early 20s, who’ve been addicted for several years, indicating that they started in high school. Clark also reports that heroin use often starts in high school. The NSDUH survey found that the average heroin user started using the drug at age 23. Pot is still the drug of choice in local high schools, but young people may have missed the campaigns of the ‘80s and ‘90s which educated the public about the dangers of heroin.
Calls to Crescent Valley High School were not returned, and Corvallis High School’s principal was not able to report any data on heroin use in schools. However, Kevin Tegan, a senior at Corvallis High School, says there have been heroin-related incidents and that “There are six kids [at CHS] who I know are on it. But it’s definitely one of the drugs that’s very looked down on. It’s not a party drug.” Kendra Phillips-Neal, the program director at Jackson Street Youth Shelter, says she hasn’t seen a recent increase in heroin use in the youth she works with: “It’s more of a curiosity, of wanting to see what it does,” after youth have seen friends using it. Stringer says, “We’re always concerned when we see young people, especially, using heroin because it is so easy to overdose.”
Long-term side effects of heroin use can include skin infections, abscesses or collapsed veins from injection, memory loss, insomnia, and a weakened immune system. Withdrawal symptoms are often violent, and lead the user to seek higher doses to avoid discomfort. Heroin’s strength often varies from one batch to the next, increasing the risk of overdosing. Heroin overdoses are responsible for most deaths of any drug in recent years, killing 143 people in Oregon in 2011 and 147 in 2012. Heroin overdoses kill victims by suppressing their nervous systems: they go into a coma and never wake up. Stringer says that many heroin users take very small amounts such as a tenth of a gram, so it’s easy for a user to accidentally overdose.
What to Look for
Prescription drug abuse is often a gateway to heroin use, sometimes reliant on family members’ prescription drugs. Students should consider if they or their friends may be at risk for using heroin or other dangerous drugs. Parents of high school students should, of course, talk to their kids about drugs but should also consider whether they might have access to prescription painkillers in their homes or those of older relatives. Heroin use may be characterized by a sudden change in behavior, fatigue following periods of elevated alertness, persistent runny nose, and weight loss. Users may wear long clothing to conceal injection sites, and tend to withdraw from favored activities or family and friends. Family members may find items such as straws, foil, or spoons with burn marks.
The takeaway for Corvallis residents? Heroin is already on the rise in our community, and may be all the more dangerous because most of us don’t realize it’s a local threat. Information can be found at http://www.drugabuse.gov, or by contacting local law enforcement.
By Bethany Carlson