Signs show Aspen-area heroin use on the rise
SUBSTANCES OF CHOICE
Aspen nonprofit A Way Out helped 165 people find treatment for substance abuse in 2014. Many were addicted to more than one substance. Here’s what the clients said:
85% reported using alcohol.
12% prescription drugs
19% illegal prescriptions
Editor’s note: This is the first story in a two-part series that looks at heroin use in the Roaring Fork Valley and the treatment options available to addicts.
Last summer, a 29-year-old Carbondale man was driving west on Highway 82 when he veered off the road, shot over the curb, nicked a bus stop in El Jebel and came to rest when his sedan smashed into the end cap of a guardrail.
First responders from the Basalt Fire Department pulled the man from his vehicle and started CPR after they found he had a pulse but wasn’t breathing. Meanwhile, an Eagle County deputy sheriff found a burnt spoon, a baggie and a syringe in the car and alerted Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson. He passed on word to an ambulance crew that they were dealing with a possible heroin overdose. The man was given an overdose-reversing drug and survived.
The Fire Department has witnessed enough of an increase in incidents involving heroin and other opiates over the past four years that it’s made it a point to stock the overdose-reversing drug, which gets a person’s heart beating again. Everyone in the department is aware of signs to look for in opiate overdoses.
“Yeah, we talk about it because we see it,” Thompson said.
The increase in heroin addiction in the U.S. has been labeled an “epidemic” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which cites surging use between 2002 and 2013, especially in the eastern part of the country.
The Roaring Fork Valley hasn’t been immune to the trend. The Aspen Detox and Drug Testing Center, operated by Mind Springs Health with funding help from partners, oversaw 13 heroin detoxifications from January through June, according to Janelle Duhon, detox supervisor.
“I think we are seeing an increase in substance abuse, period,” Duhon said.
Alcohol detox is still most prevalent at the center, with 62 patients admitted over the first half of 2015, she said. But heroin detox was second-most prevalent — even more than cocaine.
The numbers for alcohol and heroin detoxes were slightly higher in the first half of 2014, but largely because of repeat clients, Duhon said. There were 72 admissions for alcohol and 15 for heroin from January through June 2014. However, 10 people were admitted 39 times for alcohol detox while three people were admitted seven times for heroin, she said.
The Aspen detox center works with people who voluntarily go through the program. There weren’t as many “frequent fliers” in 2015.
Local and national experts say one reason for a surge in heroin use is addiction to painkillers. Duhon said opioid painkillers such as Oxycontin aren’t as readily prescribed anymore after more scrutiny of doctors and pharmacists by the federal government. Heroin provides a similar high for a lower price.
“They can get it off the streets,” Duhon said.
Bob Ferguson, founder and owner of Jaywalker Lodge, a treatment center in Carbondale, said his staff treats many young adults who got hooked on painkillers.
“Today’s gateway drug is Mom and Dad’s medicine cabinet,” he said.
When Jaywalker Lodge opened 10 years ago, there were a smaller percentage of clients who had heroin or another opiate as their drug of choice, he said. Intuitively, he said the number of people is growing, though data weren’t available. There also is a trend for addicts to run into problems earlier in life and seek treatment, according to Ferguson.
“They’re crashing and burning more quickly,” he said.
Low cost makes it attractive
“John,” a man in his early 20s, helped find treatment through the Aspen detox center and agreed to talk about his addiction and treatment as long as his name wasn’t used. He said he was using Vicodin by age 12 and eventually turned to heroin as a natural progression.
“You’ve already been exposed to opiates,” he said. “That’s the next generation.”
Cost is one factor. John said his opiate habit was to the point where it was too expensive to rely on pain medications. To shoot up heroin three or four times per day cost him about $60.
Heroin users learn the clandestine sources they can buy from in the Roaring Fork Valley, he said.
“There’s no open-air drug markets, as far as I know,” John said, referring to areas on the streets where a user can go to find drugs.
He stopped short of labeling heroin use an “epidemic” in the Roaring Fork Valley but acknowledged he views it as growing exponentially.
“There are sort of these circles of drug users as subcultures that exist,” John said.
Signs of increased heroin use include that hospitals will provide clean needles for people who ask. City Market has installed needle-disposal receptacles in its bathrooms, he noted.
The Aspen nonprofit organization A Way Out focuses on helping adolescents and young adults as well as their families deal with addictions and seek treatment. It provided help to 165 people who requested it in 2014.
“We take what comes to us,” CEO Elizabeth Means said. “Everybody uses more than one substance.”
Of the people assisted last year, 85 percent reported using alcohol and 29 percent reported using marijuana or hashish. Heroin was the next-most highly reported at 26 percent, Means said.
Users don’t fit stereotype
There used to be a stereotype that heroin was the drug of rock stars (think Eric Clapton or John Lennon) or bums on skid row. Heroin users don’t fit stereotypes anymore, Means said.
“They dress nicely. They look great. They’re clean-cut. They are people I would befriend,” she said.
Sometimes, young adults pick up a heroin habit in college or when they are early in their careers. They moved to Aspen hoping to leave their problems behind, Means said, but pick up where they left off in the party culture of the Roaring Fork Valley.
A subculture exists in Aspen where users even compare the designer bags where they stash their supply, she said.
There are no law enforcement statistics that define a clear-cut trend. Detective Dan Loya is a lieutenant in the narcotics unit of the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. He did his first undercover work in 1996.
“We used to see one or two heroin cases per year,” he said. Though he doesn’t have data, he knows anecdotally that the number has jumped “significantly” in recent years. An undercover operation led to three purchases of heroin from suppliers in El Jebel and the arrests of four people in February, Loya said.
“They all knew each other,” he said.
Loya said there haven’t been arrests of large dealers of heroin in Eagle County. In many cases, users are driving to Denver or Grand Junction to buy their supply and pick up extra to sell and support their habit, he said. Speakers at conferences for drug-enforcement officials indicate that drug cartels in Central and South America have entered the heroin business as demand has surged.
Heroin overdoses appearing
Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis said heroin was a factor in at least two recent drug overdoses in the Eagle County portion of the midvalley. In both cases, the men were 20 years old. One victim was found dead in his home in Sopris Village in 2013. The other died in his condominium at Willits earlier this year. Thompson said he is aware of at least one heroin-overdose death in Snowmass Village, where he is also the fire chief.
Dr. Steve Ayers, Pitkin County coroner, said he could remember two heroin overdose deaths in the past three or four years. In one case, the victim had ingested other drugs, as well. The other case was exclusively heroin. Ayers also works in the emergency room at Aspen Valley Hospital and has noticed an increase in heroin-overdose patients in the past four years.
“The numbers are still relatively low, but it reflects the national trend,” he said.
Loya said heroin use might be growing but it isn’t the most prevalent hard drug seen in Eagle County.
“I still think cocaine is the drug of choice right now,” he said.
Don Bird, longtime jail administrator in Pitkin County, said heroin addiction was rare among jail inmates as recently as five years ago. His staff deals with inmates with heroin addiction probably six times a year now.
“We haven’t seen any types of spikes,” he said. Alcohol abuse remains a much more common problem, according to Bird.
Nevertheless, heroin use is an issue that people in the treatment field anticipate they will have to deal more with in the future, given national trends.
“Getting heroin is like a six pack of beer. It’s easy and cheap,” Means said.
Tuesday’s article will look at problems encountered by heroin addicts and how treatment facilities try to help them.
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Eagle County, which has the largest Latino population among the three counties making up the Roaring Fork Valley and surrounding environs, 60% of white people have received one dose, compared with 15% of Latinos, who make up 29.6% of Eagle’s population. A racial equity gap in vaccination appears less pronounced in Pitkin and Garfield counties; however, those counties have higher proportions of residents who did not report their race upon being vaccinated, which can skew results. Yet the disparity remains clear.