Heroin: New drug of choice

Record Managing Editor

The decision by local police to conduct a recent raid at a known dope house wasn’t made overnight.

It was a lengthy process that included extensive intelligence gathering by police and a legal analysis to establish probable cause to search the home.

The result? Heroin was seized. Arrests were made. Criminal charges were filed.

That should provide some relief, right? Wrong.

“Typically if one dealer gets taken down, someone comes along to fill their shoes,” Warrenton Police Chief Greg Houdyshell said.

Heroin is the new drug of choice, according to local law enforcement officials. Its presence has exploded in recent years across the country, the state and here in Warren County.

At a local level, three fatal overdoses in the past two months has prompted growing concerns over the rising popularity of a drug that police are finding more frequently during home searches and traffic stops.

“It started out seeing it intermittently and sporadically,” Warren County Sheriff Kevin Harrison said. “It seems like the frequency has increased significantly in the past few years.”

The dealers are a combination of local residents and people from outside of the area, according to Harrison.

He said it’s common for people from the St. Louis metro area to travel out to Warren County and spend a couple of days dealing heroin. The dealers might be based in a hotel. They may park along a quiet street. In two day’s time, they are here and gone.

It presents a new set of challenges as they supply a growing local demand.

“It’s not always the same place and it’s mobile,” Harrison said. “It’s a moving target for us. Every couple of days it’s a different player at a new location.”

From prescription to heroin

Authorities say the heroin surge is tied to the rise in the use of prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet. The prescription drugs have a similar chemical compound as heroin and effect on an abuser’s brain.

As efforts are made to curb the legal and illegal use of prescription drugs, those who are addicted turn to heroin. It’s a much cheaper option as users can purchase a “button” for $8 to $10. That compares to $30 to $65 for a prescription pill.

And unlike some other illicit drugs, being able to take heroin in a powder pill form allows users to not worry about injecting themselves with a needle.

According to a survey conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 80 percent of recent heroin addicts switched from opioid pain pills.

The abusers come from all walks of life, authorities say.

It might be the person who has dabbled with other drugs, but turned to heroin because of its cheap availability. It might be the teenage athlete who tore a knee ligament, got hooked on painkillers and then switched over to heroin when a prescription was no longer available. It might be your neighbor.

“The unfortunate thing is, the addiction is so quick and strong,” Harrison remarked. “After chasing it, you have an addiction.”

The supply has met the growing demand.

Since the Unites States defeated the Taliban a decade ago, farming land in Afghanistan used for opium production has nearly tripled, according to research by Houdyshell. In 2002, 285 square miles were used by poppy farmers, or about the size of Lexington, Ky. In 2013, poppy farming had grown to 800 square miles, or roughly the size of Jacksonville, Fla., the fifth-largest city in the United States.

Though heroin manufactured in Afghanistan does not make it to the Unites States, it has found a market in other places where the supply is low. “Bigger supply equals easier to get,” Houdyshell said. “It’s an epidemic that has huge implications.”

The numbers game

Police at all levels are fighting the increased use of heroin.

In 2013, the number of criminal cases involving heroin in Missouri by drug task force officers was 614, according to statistics provided on the Missouri State Highway Patrol website. The number has been on a climb since 2010, when 366 cases were reported.

Cases involving other drugs, such as crack, marijuana and methamphetamine, are now on the decline.

The substance abuse problem is leading to an increased number of overdoses, deaths and hospital visits. According to a 2014 behavioral health profile, 170 Warren County residents had a drug-related diagnosis that required them to visit the emergency room and be admitted to the hospital in 2011. The number of emergency visits for drug-related cases was 233 that same year.

Both figures are a significant increase from 2010 and 2009.

Houdyshell notes that a majority of the crimes reported in Warrenton are related to drugs and the vast majority are connected to the increase presence of heroin. There might be a rash of break-ins where a heroin abuser hits every unlocked car on a street, grabbing loose change and other items that can be easily turned into cash.

The act will help fund the next purchase. It’s a cycle that is repeated over and over.

Houdyshell encourages residents to rally together to wage this latest battle against a drug that tries to overtake a community.

“The focus is, let the police know what is going on,” he said. “We’re working hard to deal with the problem, but without the community’s support, we’re ineffective.”

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