Heroin use on the rise on the Peninsula

Central Peninsula law enforcement officials and addiction counselors agree — area abuse of heroin has spread over the last several years and was the area’s largest problem in 2012.

Central Peninsula Hospital’s Serenity House saw a “very rapid” shift in patients admitted during the year, said Kristie Sellers, director of behavioral health. Serenity House, which tracks specific drugs patients have abused, saw a significant increase in heroin addiction, she said.

“It wasn’t a gradual shift at all; it was more like a flood,” Sellers said.

Patients reached out for help as their addiction worsened, causing the overflow. Law enforcement officials on the Kenai Peninsula have witnessed the rise of heroin first hand, outside the confines of a substance abuse treatment facility. Many of these users previously abused over-the-counter medications, but circumstances reduced the availability of the drugs. Alaska State Troopers are seizing more heroin paraphernalia and product during traffic stops, said Sgt. Robert Hunter.

In addition, law enforcement officials have seen more DUI arrests in which heroin is the intoxicant, discarded tinfoil and needles alongside backwoods roads and drug seizures during unrelated calls.

“It’s not everywhere, but the frequency at which troopers are coming across heroin has increased,” Hunter said.

Officers are observing more heroin and evidence of its use at crime scenes, said Kenai Police Department Lt. Dave Ross. His department, along with members of the troopers’ drug unit, began noticing an increase in heroin use three years ago, he said.

Heroin-related arrests are a small portion of Central Peninsula’s two local police departments, however. The Soldotna Police Department has had five cases involving heroin this year. That’s 8 percent of its controlled substance cases, said Chief Peter Mlynarik in an email. The Kenai Police Department made 102 misconduct involving controlled substances arrests in 2012. It’s a small percentage, Ross said, as the majority of arrests are marijuana related.

It is hard to quantify the number of cases involving heroin, however, as many cases involve offenders possessing more than one type of drug, authorities said.

The Alaska State Troopers Annual Drug Report 2011 stated heroin is no longer isolated to urban areas. Further, the amount of heroin seized statewide has increased every year for the past three years. In 2009, troopers seized 3.26 pounds of heroin; in 2010, 4.64 pounds; and in 2011, 6.41 pounds, according to the report.

Heroin use on the Peninsula is prevalent. Addiction to the drug often results from the abuse prescription opiates, like Oxycontin and Hydrocodone. It starts with pain pills, Sellers said.

When sold on the streets, heroin is vastly less expensive than the aforementioned opiates. People get hooked on pills then the supply runs dry, and they switch to heroin. It’s a supply-and-demand dilemma, Hunter said. The supply stopped when authorities halted the operations of a “pill ring” a couple years ago, he said.

Doctor’s efforts also stifled opiate abuse, Sellers said. They worked to limit the availability of prescriptions and were successful in doing so. However, the success caused another problem, she said.

Seller’s analysis of heroin use matches that provided by officers and provides insight into which residents are falling victim to the addictive drug. In years past, it was not uncommon for patients at Serenity House to have suffered a serious injury then get addicted to their prescription medications, which in turn led to heroin use. Recreational use of prescription medication among young people and professionals is the new normal, she said.

“They lose access to those drugs and move to heroin,” she said. “People have this vision in their minds: the most extreme of the drug user groups, the far-end fringes, are the heroin users. Instead, it’s college kids and young moms. There are certainly still individuals we see with long histories of drug use, but now that’s alongside someone with an infant at home.”

According to a Dec. 5 Alaska Epidemiology Bulletin, in 2008, the rate of prescription drug overdose deaths in the state was double that of the nation overall — 14.2 versus 6.5 per 100,000 person. The top two drugs Alaskans were hospitalized for were Hydrocodone and Oxycodone. Those opiates are commonly listed in the local district attorney office’s indictments.

Heroin is stronger and cheaper than the opiates.

“We’ve had several (heroin) overdoses this year, resulting in death,” Hunter said.

Authorities are focusing on catching heroin traffickers. Troopers helped in the arrest of Robert Dean Grimes, of Washington, for shipping packages of methamphetamine and heroin to the Peninsula. Grimes was arrested in October 2011 when he returned to his home state from Alaska after eluding law enforcement after trying to pick up drug packages from the Soldotna post office.

According to court records, Grimes and a co-conspirator tried to pick up the packages but were told to return the next day. When they did retrieve the drugs, authorities had placed GPS trackers in the packages. They threw the trackers out of their vehicle.

In late November of this year, Grimes was sentenced to 20 years in prison. His criminal record included multiple drug trafficking convictions.

A handful of Central Peninsula-based cases involving heroin continue their ways through the Alaska Court System. One such case involves a home invasion. Another case, an offense no older than a month, involves a shooting off Cannery Road. Soldotna police have a single ongoing investigation, Mlynarik said.

Heroin is making it’s way to the Peninsula from Mexico through the Western States, such as Washington, Arizona, Oregon and California. Tar heroin, a sticky black substance, is likely from Mexico, while white powder heroin is from Asia.

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