Pubdate: Sun, 08 Nov 2015
Source: Alaska Dispatch News (AK)
Copyright: 2015 Alaska Dispatch Publishing
Note: Anchorage Daily News until July '14
Author: Michelle Theriault Boots


Six people have died of heroin overdoses in the Alaska capital since 
February, reflecting a growing crisis across the state and nation. 
Some Alaskans, including the police, say the time has come for a new approach.

First in an occasional series

JUNEAU -- Heroin's grip on Juneau can be felt in ways both plain and subtle.

A decade of rising abuse can be seen in syringes and foil squares 
dropped on dog-walking paths and in parking lots.

In grandparents raising toddlers their children are too addicted to care for.

In people shoplifting from Fred Meyer, stealing from their own 
families and writing bad checks to pay for drugs.

But it wasn't until people started dying that Juneau really started 
paying attention.

Since February, six people have died of heroin overdoses here.

Most were under the age of 30.

For a city of 32,000, the one-after-another overdose deaths from 
heroin have been jarring and heartbreaking.

Think of it as the equivalent of 60 in Anchorage, a city roughly 10 
times bigger.

Imagine it was caused by a kind of defective car, or at the hands of 
police, says Juneau police Lt. Kris Sell.

"People would be protesting in the streets."

The lives led by the six defy Hollywood stereotypes of hollow-eyed, 
street corner junkies.

For the most part, they were homegrown kids with tight families and dreams.

In September alone, there was Brenyer Haffner, a 26-year-old who was 
an avid softball player. In his obituary, his parents asked for 
donations to the softball league instead of flowers.

Then, two weeks later, Brock Eidsness, who had earned a college 
degree in film production and had worked as a photographer for a TV station.

In a place isolated by its geography, with no way out except boat or 
plane, almost everyone has a connection to a life muddied by heroin 
or lost to it.

It's hardly a problem unique to Juneau, said police chief Bryce Johnson.

The situation in Juneau mirrors what state public health officials 
say is a larger "opiate hunger" in Alaska that is addicting and 
killing people at a higher rate than ever before.

Nationally, heroin is at the heart of a deadly resurgence.

Drug overdose deaths were the No. 1 cause of death by injury, killing 
more people than vehicle accidents or firearms, according to a Drug 
Enforcement Administration survey released Wednesday.

And heroin or prescription painkillers were the cause of more than 
half of overdose deaths, the study said.

Heroin abuse is now considered to be the top drug threat to the 
nation by police, surpassing methamphetamine, according to the 2015 
National Drug Threat Assessment Summary.

"Heroin availability is up across the country, as are abuses, 
overdoses, and overdose deaths," the DEA said in a summary of the report.

Across Alaska, 29 people have died from heroin in 2015, according to 
state medical examiner Dr. Gary Zientek.

Another nine deaths were officially listed morphine intoxication, 
usually indicating a metabolized form of heroin.

That means Juneau, with just 4 percent of the state's population, 
accounts for 15 percent of the year's heroin overdose deaths.

While leaders in rural Alaska say they are seeing more problems 
associated with the drug, deaths still tend to be clustered in the 
population centers of the state -- Anchorage, the Mat-Su and Fairbanks.

The deaths in Juneau this year have jump-started the beginnings of a 
community movement to shut down the drug's grip on addicts and 
prevent more people from getting hooked.

It includes the police department, which has said, in an unusual 
move, that it will approach heroin as first and foremost a public 
health crisis, to families increasingly willing to speaking openly 
about their loved ones' addictions.

At the same time, people here are also bracing themselves for more 
deaths to come.

Oxy in the parking lot

Recovering addicts, family members of addicts, police and parents in 
Juneau point to the mid-to-late 2000s as the genesis of today's heroin crisis.

Doctors were dispensing Oxycontin and other narcotic opiates for 
aches and injuries of all kinds at a feverish pace, they say, and 
pain pills became something of a high school subculture.

Carloads of teens crushed and snorted them around town, experimenting 
with a euphoric high.

Sitting in a truck in the parking lot of the Nugget Mall doing Oxys 
was like sneaking a beer, some former addicts said.

"My friends and I didn't really see it as a drug," said Elisa 
Evenson, an inmate at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center who is 
serving a sentence for crimes committed while she was feeding a 
heroin addiction in Juneau. "It was something you could get from the 
doctor. It was less taboo."

The pills could be acquired for sports injuries, wisdom teeth 
extractions or make-believe pains reported at urgent medical care 
offices. The bathroom cabinets of Juneau were full of legally 
prescribed narcotic opiates.

"It really felt like the Wild West back then. These drugs were just 
everywhere. And they were everywhere in the high school," said Sell, 
the police lieutenant.

Discussions about heroin in Juneau often lead back to the 
Juneau-Douglas High School class of 2008, the epicenter of a wave of 
prescription opiate use.

Several of the people who have overdosed in recent years graduated 
with the class.

Back in the era when the class was attending in high school, the 
popular kids were popping Oxys, said Larry Olson, a private 
substance-abuse counselor who practices in Juneau.

Some told him they were making more money than their parents by selling pills.

Chantel Epstein was part of that class.

Today, Epstein is a 25-year-old staying home with her infant son.

In her new-mom uniform of sweatshirt and yoga pants, she could be a 
barista or a college student. She lives in a dark apartment pressed 
up against the mountains of Juneau's Mendenhall Valley piled with her 
son's baby clothes and toys.

Nearly six years clean, she's still sweeping up some of the wreckage 
she made of her life when she was using.

Her dependence on the drug, like other former addicts interviewed for 
this story who didn't want their names used, followed a familiar trajectory.

She first used Oxycontin on her 16th birthday.

Before that she'd never even gotten drunk. she said.

"I tried it, and then after that I lost all control," she said.

In 2009 or 2010, the pills became harder to get in Juneau.

The pharmaceutical company that makes the drug reformulated it under 
pressure from the federal government. It could no longer be crushed 
for a quick high.

By then, young adults like Epstein were paying $300 a pill.

Another, much cheaper option was available to fill the void.

Epstein was first introduced to heroin on a trip to Arizona meant to 
get her sober.

Soon she was doing what she said she would never do: snorting and 
smoking heroin.

For Evenson, the former addict who is now serving time in prison, it 
was possible to believe that heroin was something she could use casually.

"My form of self-deception was that it was social use."

At the outset, no one would have suspected Evenson was dabbling in the drug.

"I was going to University of Alaska Southeast. I had a really good 
job," she said. "I had a seemingly perfect life."

In Juneau, the line between user and dealer is often fuzzy.

Epstein spent the better part of two years robbing the homes of her 
family and close family friends, pawning DVD players and jewelry. She 
cleaned out checking accounts. She shrugged off car accidents. She 
withered to 98 pounds.

When she was high, she embraced things that repelled her when sober. 
She loved vomiting.

"(Heroin) makes you feel like God," she said.

Epstein never started using needles, as many heroin addicts do to get 
a more concentrated high as the addiction progresses and their 
tolerance increases.

The risk of overdose is far higher when people inject.

"I wouldn't be here today if I had used needles," Epstein said.

Eventually police busted Epstein for an assortment of crimes she 
committed while trying to feed her habit. Initially, she was charged 
with 31 felonies.

In jail at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River she 
faced the excruciating physical reality of kicking the drug.

"I remember so many times just sitting there begging God to take my 
life because I couldn't go through the withdrawals," she said.

She hasn't used since, she says. On March 19, she'll celebrate six 
years drug-free.

The heroin days follow her all the same.

She is a convicted felon and paying $30,000 in restitution to the 
people she stole from.

Someday she'll have to tell her son, a chubby, smiley 6-month-old, 
that she is a felon.

"Life is wonderful though," she said. "I have my baby. I have my family."

Some of her friends are still addicted. Recently she tallied all the 
people she knows who've died.

She counted 23. More than a few are from the class of 2008.

"I always think about our 10 year reunion coming up," Epstein said. 
"We're going to be missing so many people."

A comeback story with a sad ending

Brock Eidsness was a football player from a big blended family with a 
goofy, orthodontically perfect grin.

He came of age during the Oxy era, graduating with the class of 2007.

For him, the pills were a quick path to serious trouble.

Eidsness first got Oxycontin from a foot injury, said his sister, 
Raegan Eidsness-Haugse.

Then a co-worker at a teenage job introduced him to heroin and 
needles. He was 15.

In 2008, when he was barely out of high school, he was indicted on 
federal drug charges for his role in an Oxy distribution ring 
operating between California's Central Valley and Juneau.

He ended up going to federal prison for 18 months.

Then Eidsness pulled off a remarkable second act: After serving his 
sentence, he completed a degree at Western Michigan University, 
discovering a passion for film production and graduating with honors.

He found work as a cameraman at a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 
television station and began dating a news anchor.

Soon his sights were set on the Los Angeles film world. He was proud 
to have worked his first gig as a production assistant on the set of 
a feature film this year.

In July a friend died in a boating accident in Juneau, and Eidsness 
came home for the funeral.

Sometime during his visit home, he slid back into using heroin.

His sister, who was attending college and working at a local air taxi 
company in Juneau, had a bad feeling.

When Brock was using, he often ignored text messages or otherwise 
pushed family away. She saw him only a few times over the summer. The 
last was to meet his visiting girlfriend over Thai food.

She felt reassured. The girlfriend seemed like a stabilizing influence.

Maybe everything will be OK, she thought.

Then a few weeks later, on the night of Sept. 17, her mom showed up 
unexpectedly at her apartment door. Raegan couldn't figure out what 
she was doing there. She'd flown up from Seattle.

Haltingly, her mother explained why she was there: Brock had 
overdosed the day before at a house where he was staying with buddies.

His friends were on a hunting trip in Canada at the time. He was home 
alone. The mother of one of the roommates found his body.

Brock was not the first Eidsness brother lost to a heroin.

The oldest son, Brock and Raegan's stepbrother, Eric Eidsness, died 
of an overdose in Wasilla in 2008.

"Like a pipeline draining resources"

It wasn't until this year that Juneau police began tracking overdoses 
related to heroin.

The word just kept appearing in police reports, said Sell.

After years of going after the supply of heroin, police are starting 
to realize they can't fix Juneau's thirst for the drug with arrests alone.

Police know heroin comes in packed on people's bodies on airplanes 
and ferries or via the postal service mail or freight barges. Larger, 
professional drug-dealing syndicates from California and Arizona have 
become involved, using local addicts as low-level dealers.

Police say they are still trying to stop the supply of heroin from 
entering Juneau. But it isn't enough.

"You can't shut off an industry as profitable as that when there's 
still a huge amount of demand that's going on. We have to get at the 
demand. That means stopping people from starting to use and getting 
people who are treatment."

On orders from the chief, she's begun posting anonymous interviews 
with former and current addicts on the police Facebook page.

She wants to introduce people to addicts, in part to dispel myths but 
also to showcase the dark reality of addiction.

The hope is to stop people before they start using, Sell said. Some 
of the videos focus on the high cost of the drug and the things 
people will do to get it.

A conservative estimate is that Juneau has 200 active heroin addicts, she says.

Since the drug sells at an astronomical markup of street prices 
found, say, in Seattle, a single high can cost $100.

If those addicts are getting high once a day, at a minimum, that adds 
up to $20,000 sucked into criminal enterprise every day in Juneau, Sell says.

"It's just like a pipeline that's draining resources from the city."

"They just reminded me so much of my own sons"

Michele Morgan knew something was very wrong when the 
twenty-something players in Juneau's recreational softball league 
started dying of heroin overdoses.

"Last year was when the normal kids, the kids the police didn't know, 
started dying," she said.

One of them overdosed just hours after playing with Morgan in the 
championship "Rain Ball" league game. Then, six months later, another 
was gone. Then a third.

Morgan organizes the softball league and lives in a funky house in 
Douglas with lots of dogs and a few goats.

She hasn't lost any family members to heroin but is among the leaders 
of the nascent community movement to face heroin head-on anyway.

After one death last summer, she took money she'd been saving to buy 
a minivan and spent it on blunt bumper stickers.


She's since made others with more lighthearted sayings like, "Bacon 
is 100 percent healthier than heroin." She even handed out T-shirts 
at one overdose victim's memorial service, at the request of his parents.

An organization Morgan is involved with, Stop Heroin Start Talking, 
drew more than 60 people to its first meeting last month. Hundreds 
have joined a Facebook group.They want to drop the stigma associated 
with heroin and get people talking openly about what it's doing to Juneau.

A group of activists including Morgan is working to get legislation 
passed that would make Narcan, an anti-overdose medication, available 
at Alaska drug stores.

Putting Narcan in the hands of friends and parents could have saved 
some of the people who died, Morgan said.

Why is she doing all this? She's scared.

The softball players who overdosed were polite young men who had been 
to college, held jobs, played sports and came from loving families.

"They just reminded me so much of my own sons," she said.

What gets to her, she says, is this: Their addictions, like the kids, 
were homegrown.

Damming the flow of heroin into Juneau will involve the full 
involvement of the community, says Johnson, the police chief.

"We gotta do something about the demand. Waiting for people to die 
isn't an acceptable outcome."

It's starting to happen: There are discussions about treatment 
options, tougher penalties for dealers and supporting the limited 
options for recovery already available in town.

But if the crisis has reached a boil, there's wide agreement that it 
isn't over yet.

Ask parents like Shirlee Bulard, who is living in limbo in the land of heroin.

An Anchorage hairdresser and mother of three, she is part of a bleak 
kinship of parents whose adult children are addicts.

Her triplets -- two girls and a boy -- grew up mostly in Juneau. They 
were social, outgoing kids who played hockey, performed on the drill 
team and cultivated a large group of friends.

They too were members of the class of 2008.

She says one daughter has stayed away from drugs and is married with 
a steady state government job.

The other two have struggled since high school with deepening addictions.

After years of frustration, Bulard says she's desperate enough to 
talk publicly about her children's problems.

Her son has spent more time in jail than out, mostly for drug-related 
crimes. Right now, he's in a three-month long treatment program in Ketchikan.

She is hopeful that he's ready to get clean for good.

It is her other daughter that frightens her most.

On a recent visit to Juneau, Bulard barely recognized a gaunt figure 
walking down the street as her child.

Bulard says the daughter lost custody of her 4-year-old son to 
grandparents. It's unclear where she is living. Maybe she's couch-surfing.

This spring, she brought the daughter up to Anchorage in hopes of 
getting her into treatment.

When she seemed ready to get clean, Bulard says she was told there 
were wait lists for treatment beds.

Bulard ended up installing a video surveillance system in her living 
room after her daughter stole to buy drugs.

At one point she found the 25-year-old curled over a heating vent, 
shaking violently from withdrawals.

"I just put my body on top of hers," Bulard said.

She thought about going out on the streets herself to get her 
daughter a fix, just to keep her from getting sick.

The thought of it makes Bulard tremble with anger.

She says she has written to legislators of her family's plight.

She keeps reading the names of kids who grew up with her own in the 
obituary section of the newspaper.

At night, she keeps her phone turned on right beside the bed, in case 
the call comes telling her one of her children has overdosed on heroin.

Marc Lester contributed to this story.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom