|An addict mixes a tar-like form of heroin with water prior to injecting it.|
The upswing in heroin use in Colorado has moved beyond cities to snare a new class of victims in rural towns and mountain resorts, according to law enforcement and health authorities.
The Roaring Fork Valley in the past year has had three deaths from heroin overdoses. Two young men died within 10 days of each other last year in Durango. A man recently overdosed on New Year's Eve in Crested Butte — the second known overdose in a year.
Two people were arrested for dealing heroin in Steamboat Springs last month. Four others were busted, and a man died of an overdose there in the past year and a half.
In Summit County, at least three inmates in a jail that holds 35 were detoxing from heroin use in recent months.
|A bag of brown heroin. (Matthew Jonas, Longmont Times-Call)|
Even though hard numbers for heroin incidents are not available specifically for mountain towns and rural areas, these cases illustrate a troubling trend for health providers and law enforcement authorities.
"It is a much more significant problem than it was a couple of years ago," Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said about the heroin cases popping up around the state.
Resort towns aren't alone in seeing a heroin upsurge: The North Metro Drug Task Force — police agencies from eight cities and counties north of Denver — has logged a 912 percent increase in heroin seizures over the past five years. Nationally, the amount of heroin seized climbed 232 percent from 2008 to 2012, according to Suthers. Boulder County reported 15 heroin deaths last year — a doubling from the previous year.
The Drug Enforcement Administration reported in its 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment that 21 jurisdictions in west-central states, including Colorado, reported a high level of heroin availability. That represents a steady climb since 2007, when only six jurisdictions reported high heroin availability.
The problems may be more notable in ski towns because heroin has traditionally been more of a city drug and a choice for hard-core addicts rather than the young ski town set.
"It used to be more sporadic in ski towns. Six or seven years ago, we would have occasional use of heroin in these towns. Now it is regular," said Jim Schrant, a Grand Junction-based special agent with the DEA.
Lt. Pat Downes, director of the Southwest Drug Task Force in Durango, where the two fatal overdoses last year were the first in memory there, said the increased use is fueled by a new kind of user.
"In the old days, it seemed to be more taboo," he said. "Now, it seems to be more mainstream."
Those dealing with the problem all point to the same factor driving this more mainstream heroin problem: prescription drug abuse.
Suthers said national and state drug statistics and surveys show four out of five heroin users previously used prescription opiates, including Oxycontin and Vicodin. Because of a crackdown in the overprescribing of those drugs, and because the street price of the drugs has shot up to $40 to $50 per pill or more, users have turned to cheaper heroin.
Suthers said users are also getting younger. He said in 2009, the average age for the first time trying heroin was 25½ years old. In the latest survey done in 2011, the average age had dropped to 22.
Most of the heroin is believed to be coming from Mexico and Honduras, and some is being delivered straight to resort towns.
Schrant said the heroin now being brought into the state is more potent than what drug agents saw in the past.
It is also being seen in different forms. One variation is Mexican black-tar heroin, a sticky black substance that needs to be injected to be effective. A powdered form of heroin can be snorted or smoked. He said some of the new users consider smoking or snorting the drug to be a more socially acceptable way of using heroin.
Even that form can be deadly because of potency. In a trend that mirrors what has happened with marijuana potency, heroin used to be 5 percent to 20 percent pure in the 1970s and '80s. Now, what is being confiscated is 50 to 90 percent pure, Suthers said.
"The potential for overdose is vastly increased," Schrant said.
Dr. Steve Ayers, an emergency room physician at Aspen Valley Hospital, said the three overdose deaths in that valley in the past year and the four or five nonfatal overdoses he has seen in the same period may be linked to that same potency factor.
He said the jump in heroin problems is troubling, but he likes to keep it in perspective by comparing it with other emergency room problems. He said prescription drugs are still the most common cause of overdoses and that it is not unusual to see five to six alcohol overdoses in a single eight-hour shift in the emergency room during busy times in Aspen