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The New Face of Heroin

Heroin use has seen a large uptick in Washington state in recent years, particularly among people between 18- and 29-years-old. Some experts attribute the increase in heroin use to its low cost and ease of access.

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KITSAP COUNTY — The city of Poulsbo is working overtime in their battle against heroin after used needles were popping up everywhere.

poulsbopoliceNow the city’s mayor has a tactical plan that includes hiring a new police officer and a drug dog, and that’s just the beginning.

Mayor Becky Erickson hopes to hire that new officer at the beginning of 2014. She’s also shuffling more than $125,000 in the city’s general fund for the new cop and the drug dog.

“When a problem is facing your community, you don’t ignore it, you address it,” said Erickson. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

The plan comes after hundreds of hypodermic needles found in parks, garbage cans, and public bathrooms since January. Public works employees discovered most of those needles and drugs.

“We find pieces of folded up tin foil or wide open tin foil scraps with black lines on them,” said Kristian Watson, who is employed in the public works department.

Instead of workers like Watson collecting the needles, Erickson is urging everyone to call 911 to have a police officer collect them. It’s part of an aggressive plan to catalog exactly when and where the dirty needles are found.

“The more aggressive we are, the quicker we are going to solve the problem,” Erickson said. “We’re getting the word out to the people doing things they shouldn’t, that this will not be tolerated in Poulsbo. We are not tolerating this kind of behavior.”

That behavior is connected, in one way or another, to 80% of all other crime city-wide, according to police.

“It fuels property crime and that’s what you’re seeing,” said Deputy Police Chief Robert Wright. “It’s very prevalent and it’s very dangerous to just let it run its course.”

The needles aren’t just being found in public places. Joshua Ortiz found them at work a few weeks ago.

“We were closing the restaurant and I walked into the bathroom,” said Ortiz. “There was nothing there, I was there 10 minutes ago. When I go in there, and there’s two needles on the sink.”

Also part of the mayor’s plan is to install surveillance cameras in city parks to catch the drug users in the act. Plus she’s asking residents to snap photos of suspicious activity and email those to the city to this email address.

Eradicating heroin use in Poulsbo might be an uphill battle, but Erickson believes they’re already starting to see a difference.

“I think we’re already making a dent,” said Erickson. “I think the bad guys are already figuring out that Poulsbo means business and we’re not putting up with it.”

Erickson is also floating the idea of asking the voters to pass a tax increase to grow the police department even bigger.

SEATTLE — Heroin use is on the rise among many young people.

Shilo Murphy runs the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance in Seattle’s University District.  It’s a needle exchange where intravenous drug users can trade in used needles for clean ones in order to prevent the spread of infection. Murphy is a former user and he’s concerned about the change in his clientele.

“We’re seeing a younger population that we haven’t seen in years — 16, 17, 18 — all the way to their early 20s.” he said. “People coming from suburban areas, rural areas.”

heroin2Dr. Caleb Banta-Green of the University of Washington recently published a study on heroin use in Washington state. He said Murphy is right — heroin is making a comeback with kids.

“I don’t want people to think it’s a problem at one place or another, it seems to be hitting most places, unfortunately, pretty even,” Banta-Green said.

The trouble, according to the research, begins in high school when most kids start experimenting with prescription drugs from somebody’s family medicine cabinet.

Joelle Puccio, the women’s director at the needle exchange, saw that herself.

“So many kids I knew growing up as a teenager were doing OxyContin and Percocet,” she said. “And they were like, ‘It’s safe, they’re prescription, it’s fine.’ ”

The problem arises when those kids become addicted. Then, you need more and more to get the same experience, and now that drugs like OxyContin and Percocet are harder to get, many young people are turning to heroin.

“It’s very logical — if you look at a molecule of OxyCodone and a molecule of heroin, they’re virtually identical,” Banta-Green said. “The brain sees them as identical.”

Heroin is cheaper, which also makes it attractive to young people. Some said they can get high for as little as $5. But it’s a lot more dangerous, and Banta-Green said you can never be sure of what you’re buying and the risk of overdose is extreme.

“You have no idea what’s in it, you have no idea the purity is. It could be 5 percent, it could be 30 percent. It’s very hard to say this much is going to get me high, this much is going to kill me.”

“A lot of the kids coming up are wildly uninformed about what the drugs are, how they work, what to do in an overdose, safe injection practices,” Puccio said. “Because these are kids that didn’t necessarily grow up in the drug-using culture, they were sort of shoved there from the middle class, and you don’t really learn about that kind of thing in the normal middle-class upbringing.”

The best-case scenario is to keep kids away from the drugs in the first place.

“We have a young group who needs to not get exposed to opiates, that’s really important,” Banta-Green said.

His advice is to not leave old pain medication around the house, and to make sure children understand the dangers involved with taking prescription drugs.

As for the people who are already involved with narcotics, treatment programs can work.

Murphy said that’s where he comes in. He’s not just giving clean syringes and other paraphernalia to users, he’s also providing a place where they feel accepted.

“We tell them that they’re loved. They are not a sub-human population. They’re our brothers, our sisters.”

“This is sometimes the first place people can be honest and open about their drug use,” Puccio added. “Without fear of punishment or judgment or even embarrassment.”

The hope is that, in an atmosphere of trust, addicts might be able to admit they have a problem and reach out for help.

“We provide referrals to treatment, we can tell people, ‘Here’s who to call, here’s what to do’,” Puccio said. “If we’re the only professionals that these people ever ask for help from, then we’re sometimes the only route to treatment people can have.”

Banta-Green and PHRA also say it’s important to spread the word about naloxone or Narcan, a drug that counters the effects of heroin to prevent an overdose. In Washington state, it is legal to get a prescription for yourself or a loved one who may be at risk for an overdose.

For more information, and some of the resources available to help addicts, go to Stop Overdose or The People’s Harm Reduction Alliance.

SEATTLE — Thursday night’s episode of “Glee” was a special tribute to its cast member Cory Monteith, the actor who died of a heroin overdose this summer.

heroin3Doctors in Washington state say we need to realize that what happened to Monteith is not an isolated case and that there is a new face of heroin.

Fans were shocked when Monteith died of an overdose, but experts say the 31-year-old actor fits the profile of a new wave of heroin users.

“We typically think of heroin use as IV drug users — those folks that are in alleyways or downtown around the court house,” Frank Couch, the executive director of Science and Management of Addictions, said. “That’s not how it always starts.”

Couch said many young people start with drugs from the medicine cabinet. “There has been an explosion in prescription drugs, opiates. It’s an epidemic.”

That’s made doctors more careful about prescribing the strongest narcotics, which makes them more expensive on the black market. Drug companies have also changed their pills so they can’t be easily smoked or snorted.

Couch said that has led many teens to heroin because it has the same effects as prescription medication and is cheaper.

A new University of Washington study says more 18- to 29-year-olds in Washington seek treatment for heroin addiction than any other drug, and in the last three years the number of fatal overdoses in the state has nearly doubled. Victims include 17-year-old Maceo Neihaus of Port Angeles and 18-year-old Corey Pierce of Snohomish.

Randy Pierce, Corey’s dad, now speaks at local high schools in the hopes of keeping other families from experiencing such a devastating loss.

“I tell them what it’s done to me and to my family and how it affects everyone around them,” Pierce said.

Everyone agrees, the best-case scenario is for kids to never try the drugs. But for those young people who are already in trouble, Couch has a simple message.

“You can get out. Sometimes it depends on who you are, it takes longer for some folks. Sometime it takes multiple treatment episodes, but recovery is possible from opiate use.”

For more information on SAMA, go to


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