Pubdate: Thu, 08 Aug 2013
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Zusha Elinson and Arian Campo-Flores


This Time, Small Towns are Increasingly Beset by Addiction,
Drug-Related Crimes

ELLENSBURG, Wash. - This small city east of the Cascade Mountains is
known for its hay farms, rodeos and, increasingly, something more
sinister: a growing heroin problem.

The drug surfaced in the past two years and is spawning a new
generation of addicts. The fatal overdose of a state trooper's son in
May convulsed the town-especially when the two men arrested and
charged with selling him heroin turned out to be a county official's
sons. They pleaded not guilty in Kittitas County Superior Court and
are awaiting trial.

"It really shook our community," said Norman Redberg, executive
director of Kittitas County Alcohol Drug Dependency Service. He has
evaluated 27 heroin users in the fiscal year that ended June 30,
compared with three in 2008. Ellensburg has 18,000 residents.

Heroin use in the U.S. is soaring, especially in rural areas, amid
ample supply and a shift away from costlier prescription narcotics
that are becoming tougher to acquire. The number of people who say
they have used heroin in the past year jumped 53.5% to 620,000 between
2002 to 2011, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration. There were 3,094 overdose deaths in 2010, a
55% increase from 2000, according to the federal Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention.

Much of the heroin that reaches smaller towns such as Ellensburg comes
from Mexico, where producers have ramped up production in recent
years, drug officials say. Heroin seizures at the Southwest border,
from Texas to California, ballooned to 1,989 kilograms in fiscal 2012
from 487 kilograms in 2008, according to figures from the Drug
Enforcement Administration.

The heroin scourge has been driven largely by a law-enforcement
crackdown on illicit use of prescription painkillers such as oxycodone
and drug-company reformulations that make the pills harder to crush
and snort, drug officials say. That has pushed those who were addicted
to the pills to turn to heroin, which is cheaper and more plentiful.

"Basically, you have a generation of ready-made heroin addicts," said
Matthew Barnes, special agent in charge of the DEA's Seattle division.

Given the growing supply, dealers have flooded local markets with
heroin. Former users interviewed in Ellensburg, who didn't want to be
identified, said dealers promoted the drug aggressively. A 21-year-old
recovering addict said she made the switch from pain pills to heroin
after her dealer one day held out both options in his hands and
encouraged her to choose the cheaper one.

A former Marine who lives in Ellensburg said he switched to heroin
after getting hooked on oxycodone prescribed to him for an injury
suffered while serving overseas. "To me, it was identical," said the
28-year-old. "It's mind-numbing, an instant antidepressant." He was
eventually arrested for writing bad checks; if he successfully
completes drug treatment, charges will be dropped.

Drug experts say the heroin sold today is generally purer and thereby
more potent than the varieties prevalent in past decades, increasing
the risk of overdose. Moreover, the purity can vary enormously from
one batch to the next. A baggie "may be 15% pure one day, and the next
day it's 60%," said Skip Holbrook, the police chief in Huntington,
W.Va., which sits in an area of Appalachia where heroin is spreading.
"It's like playing Russian roulette.

In contrast to the 1970s and 1980s, when heroin ravaged inner-city
neighborhoods, this time it is taking hold in rural places that are
often unprepared to deal with the fallout, a trend noted in this
year's White House National Drug Control Strategy report. Many lack
addiction-treatment options. According to data analyzed by the Maine
Rural Health Research Center, 93% of facilities nationwide with
treatment programs for opioids, a class of pain-relief drugs including
heroin, are located in metropolitan areas.

Small-town police forces strain to handle the additional narcotics
investigations and drug-related crimes such as burglaries. Some
afflicted areas are far from hospital emergency rooms, raising the
risk that an overdose will be deadly. In Ellensburg, Kim Hitchcock,
who works at a nonprofit public-health organization, has started a
needle-exchange program in her spare time and taken young addicts
released from the hospital following overdoses into her home. "There's
a tremendous lack of services in our area," she said.

In Marinette, Wis., some employers are having difficulty filling
positions because so many applicants are testing positive for heroin,
said state Rep. John Nygren. The problem prompted the local chamber of
commerce in April to begin assembling a consortium of community
organizations to address the problem. Meanwhile, a sharp rise in
heroin-related crime has fed a 31% increase in the inmate population
at the 164-bed local jail over the past two years, said administrator
Bob Majewski.

The town of 11,000 has no residential treatment centers for addicts.
"If somebody says, 'I'm at bottom, I need help,' there's nothing that
we have to give them," said Sgt. Scott Ries of the Marinette Police
Department. "It's really sad."

The only option is to head to cities such as Green Bay, an hour

In some rural areas of Kentucky, communities "are experiencing heroin
literally for the first time," said Bill Mark, director of the
Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force. Last year, 28 of the state's 120
counties logged their first heroin arrests since he started tracking
such data in 2008, he said.

Back in Huntington, W.Va., heroin became the top drug problem in the
city of around 50,000 about six months ago, said Mr. Holbrook, the
police chief. Last month, a local task force nabbed 3.7 pounds of the
drug, one of the largest seizures ever in the region. And police are
contending with a steady increase in property crimes like larceny,
driven by addicts trying to feed their habit.

The drug "transcends all areas of our town," Mr. Holbrook said. "It is
absolutely the most pressing issue that we face."
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