Heroin a regional epidemic
Melanie Russell photo
Snohomish Police Sgt. Eric Fournier (left) and Chief John Flood stand at 303 Avenue A in Snohomish, a named drug house, in May after chatting about what they saw inside the house.
SNOHOMISH COUNTY — A heroin epidemic in Snohomish County has law enforcement seeing more heroin arrests and deaths in the past decade.
The most startling rise is among school-age children, and police say the solution to combat this spike lies with the public.
Drugs are here
Commander Pat Slack of the Snohomish Regional Drug and Gang Task Force furrowed his brow often above his sharp blue eyes while talking about the local heroin situation.
A heavyweight in fighting narcotics, Slack's been in law enforcement for 45 years and has seen the waves of change among hard drugs. In the past decade, people snorted crushed Oxycontin pills, and they used methamphetamine.
Heroin is the big go-to these days.
The big shift with heroin, though, is that it is no longer considered a drug that users eventually graduate to, but instead people these days begin with it off the bat, Slack said.
“We are in what you could call a heroin epidemic throughout Snohomish County, probably throughout the state of Washington,” Slack said. “We have heroin being used in the high schools, we have heroin being used in junior high. I’m not saying every kid in school is using it, but it being there is a threat to the others.”
Both Slack and Snohomish Police Chief John Flood confirmed that kids are not beginning with the traditional “gateway drugs” before getting to heroin. No, they’re going straight to heroin.
“Now, what we see is, it’s everywhere in our community. It’s in the farming community, it’s in the inner city, it’s in Snohomish. A number of individuals are starting with heroin, because it is so prevalent,” Flood said.
Heroin’s uses and connection to crime
Flood said his patrol officers have contacted more heroin users through traffic stops in the last year.
With the recent bust of two heroin houses in Snohomish, the drug is still making an impact among school-aged teenagers, primarily females, he said.
The short-term heroin effects range from euphoria, a “rush” to the head and throughout the body followed by heavy relaxation and appetite loss.
“What we have with heroin is we have this ‘wonder drug’ that has taken over our community, it allows users to escape reality, whatever that reality may be,” Flood said.
At the high schools, girls are getting more into heroin.
“We find that many of these individuals that are using heroin are self-medicating, or a lot of the users are girls using heroin to lose weight,” Flood said.
Slack said his organization is literally getting heroin cases daily, and undercover officers are buying heroin every day from drug gangs or drug-trafficking organizations.
More heroin equals more crime
Flood pulled numbers that show the sudden rise in crime due to heroin, by his count. He focused the study on the Snohomish Station area. In January through May 10, 2013, there were seven thefts and one substance abuse call. From January through May 10 this year, there were 54 thefts and seven substance abuse calls.
Flood said most of the theft crimes were to fuel a heroin habit. The substance abuse calls were in relation to heroin.
He plans to increase patrols at Snohomish Station in response.
A lot of the cases involved users shoplifting items from the “big box stores” at Snohomish Station, and then turning around and either retuning the stolen items to get a gift card to cash out at a Coinstar machine, or selling the stolen items to get cash for drug money.
“These individuals are driven to do things they never thought they would do, like stealing,” Flood said. “And it’s all fueled by their need and desire to have heroin.”
Slack said in his professional opinion, 85 percent of all crime has a drug nexus. Pushing that crime out, however tactical law enforcement tries to be, would create a domino effect from one community to the next. Those that “have to have the drug” will continue on to the next town in order to feed their fix.
“It’s the nature of the beast,” Slack said.
Snohomish is the go-to place right now.
“For whatever reason, Snohomish has been identified by the drug/criminal community as a good place to go and commit crime,” Flood said.
The Task Force has made some headway in combating the heroin epidemic. Slack said the Task Force did an operation that began in December 2013 and culminated in January in which they confiscated 26 pounds of heroin. In another case in February, that was up in Arlington, Slack said they took 13 or 15 pounds of heroin.
Law enforcement uses small-scale dealer arrests to build cases against bigger dealers.
In 2012, Slack said the county did a clean needle exchange program and ended up giving away over 1 million needles in Snohomish County alone.
Heroin continues to evolve.
Flood said they are making more arrests lately, and more than half of the contacts made with drug users, primarily through traffic stops and patrols, are with females.
In Monroe, heroin arrests are increasing as well.
“Heroin is a huge problem both here locally and throughout the state of Washington,” Monroe Police Deputy Chief Kenny Ginnard said. “We do have a few arrests a month for heroin cases and meth cases. But it’s the same here as other communities. Heroin is becoming more and more prevalent.”
The Monroe Police Department is using a drug-sniffing dog at Monroe High School’s parking lot as one way to combat the issue.
“We do have an officer stationed at Monroe High School, there’s some issues with high schoolers but not a lot that we’ve seen,” he said. “We’re mostly seeing young adults (with heroin).”
Heroin is still a killer.
The University of Washington studied the numbers recently.
Between 2008 and 2010, Snohomish County had 166 heroin deaths. For treatment admissions for prescription opiates, Snohomish went from 44 admissions in 1999, to 793 admissions in 2010. For treatment admissions for heroin in that same timeframe, Snohomish went from 287 to 711.
The long-term effects of heroin on the body are numerous.
Some former users have said the withdrawals from heroin alone are physically painful and makes them physically sick, making it hard to get clean. The medical effects of continual use of heroin include addiction, tolerance, dependence, pneumonia, infection of heart lining and valves, collapsed veins, decreased liver function and abscesses.
Families are hurt the most
Slack furrowed his brow and said the most devastating effects of heroin have nothing to do with the users themselves, but rather, the people closest around them. Slack called them secondary victims.
“For me, I’ve had to go to people’s houses and tell them their son or their daughter or their husband or wife will never come home again because they’re dead,” Slack said.
These secondary victims may hurt longer than the user themselves.
“So when you talk about devastation, they’re all devastating. Heroin is prevalent right now and is the buzz word of the day and I think it may be around for a while, because it’s cheap and is being shipped up here in large quantities by the cartels.”
It’s coming from south of us.
“There is a distribution network that is coming out of places like California, Arizona and Mexico that is going throughout the United States,” Slack said. “We’re kind of at the end of the train line.”
Both men said the biggest thing to boost heroin prevention is education as well as awareness to keep kids away from drugs.
“It’s getting worse, not better,” Slack said. “We need to do a better job at educating our kids on the threats that are before them so they can make better decisions. I don’t think we as a society do a good job with that. But honestly, there’s no way to stop (drugs), because (it’s) a big part of our economy. It’s not as easy as people would like it to be. It’s not like taking a pencil and erasing a word on a piece of paper. For me in law enforcement, it’s a huge challenge to try to protect the public from the public. That’s what we’re doing. Constantly.”