Think of a heroin user and what comes to mind? A gaunt addict in some flophouse with a needle hanging out of his arm?
How about an Oscar winner? Or a billionaire’s grandson? Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman just got out of rehab for a heroin addiction, and the heir to financier T. Boone Pickens died of a heroin overdose earlier this year.
Do an Internet news search of “heroin,” and one fact becomes clear: The opiate — which can be smoked, snorted or injected — is making a comeback. In cities across the country, law enforcement and public health officials are talking about “crisis” levels of heroin use and an “epidemic” of heroin overdose deaths.
Heroin never really went away, of course, but in recent years it’s been overshadowed by crack cocaine, methamphetamine and prescription opiates such as oxycodone. Authorities have made inroads against those drugs and many states, including Washington, have passed laws making it harder to get meth-making ingredients.
Now some in drug-enforcement circles are seeing the increase of heroin use as an unintended consequence of getting tough on prescription painkillers and domestic meth production. Young people who got hooked on opiates by raiding their parents’ medicine cabinets are finding it easier and cheaper now to get heroin than prescription painkillers. And the heroin is coming in from Mexico along the same supply routes as meth now that it’s harder to manufacture that drug in-state.
Counties all over the state are reporting significant increases in heroin use — and overdose deaths. Although once heroin had a reputation as an urban drug, it’s finding users in rural counties such as Cowlitz, Chelan, and Grays Harbor as well as in the more populated King and Pierce counties.
Washington state has some of the best statistics in the country in tracking the increase of heroin use and they’re catching the attention of drug enforcement authorities elsewhere; they see the numbers here as bellwethers for what they should expect.
Figures for rising heroin use should alarm public health officials as well as law enforcement. Heroin users often share needles, which can spread such infectious diseases as HIV and hepatitis. It would make sense to step up publicity of needle-exchange programs that reduce the risk of spreading disease.
Fortunately, the state enacted a 911 Good Samaritan Law three years ago. That law encourages people to seek emergency help when they see someone overdosing by giving the caller immunity from prosecution for drug possession.
Using heroin is illegal, but it shouldn’t be a death sentence. Saving a life, then getting that person into treatment, should override punishment.