Heroin Makes a Comeback

ELLENSBURG, Wash.—This small city east of the Cascade Mountains is known for its hay farms, rodeos and, increasingly, something more sinister: a growing heroin problem.

The drug surfaced in the past two years and is spawning a new generation of addicts. The fatal overdose of a state trooper’s son in May convulsed the town—especially when the two men arrested and charged with selling him heroin turned out to be a county official’s sons. They pleaded not guilty in Kittitas County Superior Court and are awaiting trial.

“It really shook our community,” said Norman Redberg, executive director of Kittitas County Alcohol Drug Dependency Service. He has evaluated 27 heroin users in the fiscal year that ended June 30, compared with three in 2008. Ellensburg has 18,000 residents.

Heroin use in the U.S. is soaring, especially in rural areas, amid ample supply and a shift away from costlier prescription narcotics that are becoming tougher to acquire. The number of people who say they have used heroin in the past year jumped 53.5% to 620,000 between 2002 to 2011, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. There were 3,094 overdose deaths in 2010, a 55% increase from 2000, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Much of the heroin that reaches smaller towns such as Ellensburg comes from Mexico, where producers have ramped up production in recent years, drug officials say. Heroin seizures at the Southwest border, from Texas to California, ballooned to 1,989 kilograms in fiscal 2012 from 487 kilograms in 2008, according to figures from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The heroin scourge has been driven largely by a law-enforcement crackdown on illicit use of prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and drug-company reformulations that make the pills harder to crush and snort, drug officials say. That has pushed those who were addicted to the pills to turn to heroin, which is cheaper and more plentiful.

“Basically, you have a generation of ready-made heroin addicts,” said Matthew Barnes, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Seattle division.

Given the growing supply, dealers have flooded local markets with heroin. Former users interviewed in Ellensburg, who didn’t want to be identified, said dealers promoted the drug aggressively. A 21-year-old recovering addict said she made the switch from pain pills to heroin after her dealer one day held out both options in his hands and encouraged her to choose the cheaper one.

A former Marine who lives in Ellensburg said he switched to heroin after getting hooked on oxycodone prescribed to him for an injury suffered while serving overseas. “To me, it was identical,” said the 28-year-old. “It’s a mind-numbing, and instant antidepressant.” He was eventually arrested for writing bad checks; if he successfully completes drug treatment, charges will be dropped.

Drug experts say the heroin sold today is generally purer and thereby more potent than the varieties prevalent in past decades, increasing the risk of overdose. Moreover, the purity can vary enormously from one batch to the next. A baggie “maybe 15% pure one day, and the next day it’s 60%,” said Skip Holbrook, the police chief in Huntington, W.Va., which sits in an area of Appalachia where heroin is spreading. “It’s like playing Russian roulette.”