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Heroin threat looms

Price hikes in prescription pills opens door for heroin

Albany Dougherty Drug Unit Commander Major Bill Berry says heroin use likely to rise in south Georgia. (File photo)

Albany Dougherty Drug Unit Commander Major Bill Berry says heroin use likely to rise in south Georgia. (File photo)

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Heroin users typically inject the drug using a hypodermic needle after they have dissolved it on a spoon using water and heat from a candle, matches or lighter. (Image courtesy of Victor Habbick / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

ALBANY — For most Southwest Georgians, headlines proclaiming a rise in north Georgia teen drug overdoses and stories like those of Cobb County twenty something Elizabeth Turner, who died of a heroin overdose in early 2012, have typically been written off as problems of the “big city.”

But with the heroin-related death earlier this year of renowned actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, the drug suddenly crept its way onto everyone’s radar. And with its emergence came a question the region hated to ask and an answer its residents were frightened to hear.

Were we in rural Georgia in danger of having heroin impact our more sedate lives?

According to Maj. Bill Berry of the Albany-Dougherty Drug Unit (ADDU) the answer is yes.

Berry said contemporaries in Atlanta and other major cities have been noting a rise in the drug over the past few years, but only recently has it been found in south Georgia. The ADDU made a small heroin bust last year and in early February the Worth County Sheriff’s Office arrested two Albany residents for possession of the drug.

In addition to those developments, Berry said there have been rumors and talk of heroin in the area, something that does not surprise him.

“Heroin’s going to slip back up behind us,” Berry said during a recent interview. “Heroin is going to be a huge problem.”

The reason for Berry’s concerns are twofold. First, Berry says, the use of most drugs is cyclical, so it’s almost inevitable that heroin would resurface at some point.

“Drugs are like a wheel,” Berry said. “Everything comes back around at some point.”

The bigger issue, however, is that unlike the heroin boom of the 1970s and early ’80s, heroin is coming back this time on the heels of an unprecedented explosion in the abuse of prescription pain pills, potentially opening the drug up to a brand new market that hasn’t been exposed to it.

Narcotic pain pills, which are manufactured for legitimate purposes, are opiates, just like heroin and its parent drug opium. Over the last 20 years, a variety of potent opiate painkillers has flooded the market and black-market distribution to addicts has become a large problem across the nation.

Just last year the Albany Dougherty Drug Unit made nearly 600 drug-related arrests and confiscated over $260,000 worth of prescription pills, the majority of which were painkillers. That value was second only to marijuana, which accounts for roughly $613,000 of the $1.2 million in drugs taken off of the streets in Albany/Dougherty County in 2013.

“Back about a year, year and half ago it was rare to see pain pills at other busts,” Berry said. “Now we see them at just about every bust we do. We had a bust a couple of months ago where we got a good amount of meth and pot, but no pills. That was the first time I’ve been on a dope deal in a long time that I can remember pain pills not being involved.”

How this correlates to a growing concern over heroin, is that as law enforcement agencies, doctors and pharmacies crack down on the black market painkiller trade, it has driven up the street prices, opening the door for heroin.

“The pain pills, they’ve priced themselves out of the market,” Berry said. “The DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) says, and I agree with it, that most of the pain pills are going for $2 a gram, so if you have a 10 gram pill it’s going for $20 on the street. Well, it wasn’t long ago that you could get them for a dollar or less a gram. Well, they are the thing, they’re popular, people want them and they’re going to pay for them; they’ve got to have them, they need them. Because of demand, and they’re harder to get because there’s more people watching pills, it’s caused that price to go up.”

With the higher prices, people already addicted to painkillers are going to search for cheaper alternatives, which could potentially lead them to heroin, Berry said. To illustrate his point, Berry used an analogy about high performance automobiles.

“You have a product, I’m going to use a car,” Berry began. “You have a car, a Corvette. The Corvette comes out and is really popular and the price goes through the roof and you can’t get one, a decent one. So what happens, somebody goes and starts taking a look at a 300z or foreign car, something that’s high performance, yet it’s not the price and maybe not quite as good, but it’ll give me what I want.”

The problem with that, in regard to heroin, Berry said, is that unlike painkillers which are made professionally and uniformly, the potency of heroin can vary greatly, putting the user at greater risk for overdose.

Heroin is rarely found on the street in a pure form, Berry said. More than likely it is mixed, or “cut,” with another substance such as aspirin or acetaminophen, changing the potency from batch to batch. Because of this, it might take varying amounts to give the user the desired effect, meaning that it’s harder for the user to determine how much to take, making it easier to overdose.

“The one thing about pain pills that is good is that they’re professionally made in factories, by companies that are controlled and monitored so that you know what you’re getting,” said Berry. “Now if you take four or five of them at one time that’s your fault, but you’re not going to get one and maybe the mixture was a little stronger than what you thought. But when you buy a bag of dope, it may be really really weak and you don’t get the effect and you have to use more which can cause overdose or you don’t know what’s in it, who’s cut it or if it has other dangerous drugs like fentanyl in it.

“There’s nothing on the label that says it’s half this, half that or a fourth this and a fourth that. It’s almost Russian Roulette; you don’t know what you’re getting. That’s the danger of it. It’s not that taking pain pills is good, but at least you’d know it’s made with controlled substances and in a controlled environment and so the substance is what is says it is.”

The burgeoning market and uncertainty of potency has caused a hike in heroin use and overdoses throughout the country.

According to a study done by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2012 nearly 670,000 people over the age of 12 had used heroin at some point during the year and 156,000 people were first-time users. Roughly 460,000 of those who used the drug were considered heroin dependant — more than double the number reported in 2002.

Additionally, several cities throughout the country, including Atlanta, have seen a recent spike in heroin-related deaths. According to a recent report from WSB-TV in Atlanta, heroin deaths in DeKalb County rose from five to 10 from 2012 to 2013, deaths in Gwinnett County rose from two in 2012 to seven in 2013, deaths in Cobb County rose from nine in 2011 to 16 in 2012 and deaths in Fulton County rose from 24 to 31 from 2012 to 2013.

“Heroin is going to be a huge problem in the future,” Berry said. “It isn’t as bad as it is in some parts of Georgia, but it’s an issue. Some of my counterparts that I talk to, they’re doing a heroin deal every other day or two.”

Once considered the scourge of urban areas around the country, heroin had kept a low profile in recent years. Until now.