The other day I sat down for an interview with two young men. It was a sunny day and we were talking on a bench in downtown Basalt. They are in their early twenties; both are clean-cut, good-looking guys and very articulate and educated. They were telling me about heroin.
Medical providers and emergency officials are seeing an increase in the number of heroin overdoses and heroin addicts in the Roaring Fork Valley. APR's Roger Adams reports.
George - “The high, I’d say, from intravenous use is you get that initial rush where your body floods with a feeling of just utter comfort and warmth. And, then after that it kind of mellows out and you go into that nod stage; you’re going in and out of consciousness just feeling extremely content.”
Mark – “The drug in its full dose hits you immediately so, imagine getting hit with how drunk you would be from twelve beers in two seconds. So, its this intense feeling that just rushes over you, it kind of takes over, just warm pleasurable sensation that its so strong that its hard to describe.”
For the sake of this story I’m calling the men George and Mark. I asked what drew them to heroin, what was the high they kept chasing. They also talked about the other reality of heroin; the pain of running out and the threat of overdose. They both have been clean for just a few weeks now. Mark has almost died from overdosing a couple times and George was so worn down by his addition he went into Aspen Detox to get help with his withdrawal from the heroin. It feels, he says like a really long and really terrible cold.
George – “Kinda like a flu I’d say but, along with that there’s also the mental fog that you get and you just feel really depressed I guess and your body just feels really achy, you’re sweating a lot and you can get nauseous and diarrhea comes along with that too. And, then you just fiend for the drug after that.”
George and Mark are part of a heroin subculture in the Roaring Fork Valley and a growing drug culture nationally.
“Its clear that opiate addiction is an urgent and growing public health crisis.”
That’s US Attorney General Eric Holder speaking last week in an address about what he called an alarming increase in the number of heroin and opiate overdoses.
“Addiction to heroin and other opiates including certain prescription pain killers is impacting the lives of Americans in every state, in every region and from every background and walk of life and all to often, with deadly results.”
Nationally, said Holder, heroin overdoses have risen by almost fifty percent since 2006. The problem is not just in far away big cities like New York or LA, or even Denver. Here in the valley, overdoses are becoming more frequent.
“We see about one a month.”
Ron Leach is the Fire Chief at the Carbondale Fire District. He is also in charge of all the Emergency Medical Technicians and ambulances in the mid-valley. His EMT’s have been seeing a steady rise in the last year of overdoses on heroin and prescription opiates like Oxycontin, 911 calls about addicts like Mark and his roommate George.
“We notice a lot of young people that end up getting 911 called. Young kids; twenty year old kids.”
And by the time the EMT’s arrive many are very near death. Heroin is in the opioid family of drugs. It is a fast acting derivative of morphine, which comes from the resin of the poppy plant. Many prescription pain-killers are synthetic versions of these opioids; among them oxycodone. These drugs flood receptors in the brain, central nervous system and the gastrointestinal system. They hit pleasure centers of the brain but also slow down the nervous system. In an overdose, an addict’s breathing will slow down or stop. Again Fire Chief Ron Leach.
“It’s a serious condition. It amounts to respiratory depression. That’s the medical problem.”
EMT’s and other first responders now carry an anti-opiate drug. One common brand name is Narcan. EMT’s will inject an overdosed addict and it will immediately restore breathing. It has to be injected soon after an overdose; wait too long and the addict will die. In the past several months there have been three overdose deaths in the valley. The Aspen Counseling Center, which operates Aspen Detox, has had ten heroin addicts in for withdrawals in the last six months. Interestingly, law enforcement from Aspen to Glenwood Springs have not seen a similar increase in arrests for heroin possession or sale. Jim Schrant is the Agent in Chrage for the West Slope operations of the Drug Enforcement Administration; DEA. Says this doesn’t come as a surprise.
“It doesn’t because typically first responders on the medical side often times will be the first to see the outbreak of a problem. We’ve seen that with new and emerging drugs or old dugs like heroin that tend to re-present themselves in a certain area.”
The uptick in heroin use in the valley could be linked to a tightening of opiate prescriptions that began about a year ago. Aspen Valley Hospital along with other hospitals on the West Slope and then many private physicians began issuing fewer scripts for opiates for pain. Prescription drugs are the way many addicts first became dependent.
“We have a large amount of the population that unfortunately abuses and is addicted to these drugs and when for a variety of reasons they are unable to have these drugs they go to the next best available resource which is their heroin dealer.”
And says, Schrant, the price for heroin has been dropping in recent months making cheap heroin an even more attractive alternative. In his national address on opiates, Attorney General Holder promised increased law enforcement from the DEA specifically targeting heroin. Agent Schrant says one part of the strategy is making dealers responsible for overdose deaths. He says the tactic has been successful in Florida.
“We were trying to tie overdose homicide deaths to the traffickers and then charging them with that offense. And, from that we were very effective at really sending a message to the traffickers in particular communities in Florida and it really had a strong effect on reducing the availability of heroin in those communities.”
While beefed up law enforcement is important to reducing heroin use the attorney general also cited treatment as critical to fighting increased heroin addiction.
“Of course, enforcement alone won’t solve the problem. And, that’s why we are enlisting a variety of partners including doctors, educators, community leaders and police officials to increase our support for education, prevention and treatment.”
Addicts Mark and George have been clean for several weeks now. They attend Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and George sought help from Aspen Detox. Mark says he believes treatment will save more heroin addicts lives than arrests of dealers.
“The price has been falling pretty consistently and its only getting purer and you know I can go find a fifty dollar gram of heroin in Denver in twenty minutes something’s not working. If more money could go to getting people who can’t afford treatment into treatment and working on the cause of these problems as opposed to just trying to arrest drug dealers who, they’re just going to pop right back up again.”
Mark and George both admit their recovery from heroin will be a long process. It won’t be easy and isn’t certain. They are both working hard on recovery. A range of treatment and AA programs are available in the valley and across Colorado. Links to treatment resources and the full interview with George and Mark are below.
Mark and George Full Interview:
US Attorney General message on Heroin: http://www.justice.gov/agwa.php?id=5
DEA drug facts: http://www.justice.gov/dea/druginfo/factsheets.shtml
NA and AA in the valley:
Narcotics Anonymous Meeting Schedule: http://nacolorado.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/MountainsWestArea.pdf
Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting Schedule: http://www.coaadistrict14.org/meeting-schedule/
Drug and alcohol treatment centers:
Jaywalker Lodge - Carbondale, CO: http://www.jaywalkerlodge.com/
Harmony Foundation - Estes Park, CO: http://www.harmonyfoundationinc.com/
Aspen Detox / Mind Springs Health: https://www.mindspringshealth.org/