Story published in The Wenatchee World Jan. 13, 2016.
WENATCHEE – New data show heroin use is rising in the Wenatchee Valley as a large group of Washington state agencies last week declared a “crisis” with opioid and heroin abuse statewide.
Officials with the Columbia River Drug Task Force seized nearly five times the amount of heroin in 2015 compared to 2014, according to statistics provided by the agency. In 2014, 549 grams were seized. That jumped to 2,676 grams in 2015.
Last week, a group of state agencies released a working plan to combat opioid abuse across Washington.
“Washington state is currently experiencing an opioid abuse and overdose crisis involving prescription opioids and heroin,” the report said. “Approximately 600 individuals die each year from opioid overdose with an increasing proportion of those deaths involving heroin.”
Four groups were established to work on the issues including: preventing misuse of opioids, treating opioid dependence, preventing deaths from overdose, and using data to monitor and evaluate. The agencies that released the plan include the state Department of Health, state Department of Social and Health Services, state Department of Labor and Industries, the state Health Care Authority, and the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.
In 2013, the Columbia River Drug Task Force investigated 17 cases involving heroin. That number increased to 43 in 2014, and dropped back to 27 in 2015.
“How do you stop it?” Sgt. Chris Foreman with the drug task force said. “You stop it by going after the people who are bringing it in … that’s what we’re doing by working up the chain of suppliers. Most heroin comes into the valley from Snohomish County, he said.
Foreman said like many things, the internet and social media could be a factor in the increase. “I think it’s something that is a trend throughout the whole West Coast, but specifically from the major cities of Portland and Seattle. I think for whatever reason, people started abusing prescription opiate medication,” Foreman said. “Addicts out there wanted to get high and heroin was the solution.”
In the last three years, heroin addicts have accounted for 8.7 percent — 225 — of the patients treated by The Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment in Wenatchee. Six of the 225 patients were youths.
“What we treat is addiction — we don’t treat drugs,” executive director Loretta Stover said Friday. “Addiction is the epidemic.”
In the heroin recovery process, addicts go through withdrawal. That includes pain, muscle aches, sweating, chills — “a horrible, horrible case of the flu,” clinical director Chris Tippett said.
“In treatment, (heroin addicts) don’t need to be segregated,” Tippett said. “They’re not strangely odd or different than people that are there because of other substances. They fit in to the fabric of the treatment program. They do just as well, success-wise (and) completion rate-wise.”
Officers with the drug task force, which focuses on Chelan and Douglas counties, also investigated 128 methamphetamine cases in the last three years. In the past two years, they seized 2,949 grams of meth and 673 opiate-based pills.
“Most of the stories I hear, (addicts) start out with a legitimate prescription, particularly in that 20 to 35 age group,” Tippett said of the opiate-based pills.
Opiate-based pills include OxyContin, Xanax, and Suboxone. All are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but they are traded on the black market by drug users.
“[Suboxone is) mainly used when heroin addicts can’t afford heroin, since heroin is going for $15 to $20 for a (tenth) of a gram,” Foreman wrote in an email. Most heroin addicts use up to a gram a day, he said. Suboxone pills go for $10 to $15 in our area.
Dr. Michael Travers is one of the only doctors in the area who prescribes Suboxone. The drug is a combination of two drugs: a long-acting opiate combined with an opiate antagonist.
Suboxone reduces cravings in people who have a heroin addiction, Travers said. Patients come into his Chelan practice and declare their addiction — Travers puts them on a plan to begin recovery.
“The addicts have major problems in terms of turning their lives around,” he said. “The addiction itself is something that really takes control of their life.”
Brand name Suboxone is covered by insurance carriers, and Travers estimated it goes for about $20 per dose. “It’s very effective,” he said. “That’s not to say people don’t abuse it — they do.”
Currently, Travers has up to 40 addicts who are on this program. They are monitored at monthly checkups for using drugs or alcohol. He said most patients stay on the drug long-term.
“We’ve got a lot of addicts in the Valley,” he said. “I have never seen so much.”