Monday, June 10, 2002

Heroin: Tristate users up; addicts getting younger

By Janice Morse,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Heroin killed two of Rick Hounshell's friends; one died in his arms.

        Then it killed him.

        “It was a recreational drug that took possession of his soul,” said his sister, Kevie Webber, 47. She discovered her 40-year-old brother's body on March 21, 2000, in his West Chester Township home. “He wanted the Cadillac of all drugs and he found it with heroin. It was the thing that gave him that ultimate high.”

    • A rise in heroin overdoses first started showing up in western U.S. states several years ago. The Centers for Disease Control has attributed the jump to increased availability of the drug, a wider variety of potency, low prices and a fear of arrest if users call 911 for help.

    • The number of habitual heroin users grew from 855,000 to 977,000 between 1995 and 2000, according to the White House's Office of National Drug Control Strategy.

    • Heroin overdoses were the No. 1 cause of death in Portland, Ore., for men aged 25 to 44 in 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

    • In Seattle, officials responded to the increase in deaths there by increasing the availability of methadone, even using a mobile home to deliver it.

        Mr. Hounshell represented a recent trend among Tristate heroin abusers: white suburbanites. In fact, many heroin addicts are much younger than Mr. Hounshell; some are in their teens and early 20s.

        Heroin abuse also can fuel crimes by cash-desperate addicts. At least two Tristate bank robbers have said they pulled off heists to support heroin habits.

        Alcohol, marijuana and cocaine continue as the most common drugs of abuse. But heroin abuse has been inching upward locally and nationally for the past few years — and, the painkiller OxyContin has contributed, a report says.

        “Young, new heroin abusers seeking treatment reported OxyContin abuse prior to becoming addicted to heroin,” the Ohio Substance Abuse Monitoring Network said earlier this year.

        The network quotes an 18-year-old female heroin abuser as saying that everyone she knew who was using heroin “started out with OxyContin.” The two drugs cause a similar sense of euphoria or a “rush.”

        This January, the network warned: “Over the last six months, researchers from all areas of the state, except southeast Ohio, confirmed substantial increases in heroin abuse among young people, especially whites.”

        “Several individuals reported resorting to heroin when their OxyContin habits became too expensive or when the drug became difficult to obtain.”

        An 80-milligram dose of OxyContin might sell for $60 on the streets. A dose of heroin is available for $25 to $30, drug investigators say.

        James F. Paine, director of the Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force, said his agency has seen a shift toward heroin as enforcement efforts have dried up OxyContin supplies. His agency has arrested seven people so far this year for heroin trafficking, compared with two such arrests for all of last year.

        Cincinnati police say that Leonard Watson, 55, of Pleasant Ridge, was arrested with more than 35 grams of heroin last December — enough to get 120 people high, authorities say. Until that arrest, the department had confiscated less than 12 grams the entire year.

        The Butler County Sheriff's office had just three heroin cases in 2001, “and they were all small, street-level buys,” said Detective Jeff Riegert.

        But this year, just through June 5, there have been 11; including a major bust in February when officers arrested a trio from Dayton, Ohio, with 34 grams of heroin near the Towne Mall in Middletown.

        When Detective Riegert first joined the Butler sheriff's drug unit in 1995, “heroin was rarely even heard of in this area,” he said. “We weren't buying it on the streets. But this year, we have been.”

        State statistics show heroin abusers accounted for 4.4 percent of clients in drug treatment centers during 1999. By 2001, the percentage had risen to 7.2. In that same two-year span, the number of Ohioans citing heroin as their main drug of abuse went from 4,092 to 5,769.

        “We are watching this very carefully,” said Michael Link, chief of treatment and planning for the Ohio Department of Drug Addiction and Alcohol Services. “We haven't seen the real strong numbers (of heroin addicts) yet in our clinics, but I think it's coming.”

        Today's heroin users are too young to know that, in the 1960s and '70s, “there was a lot of stigma associated with heroin,” Mr. Link said. And, today's users, who may snort the drug rather than inject it, commonly combine heroin with other drugs, Mr. Link said.

        One combination is called “trolling.” While they're “tripping” on heroin, they're “rolling” on ecstasy, a stimulant that causes involuntary muscle contractions including rolling eyes, explained Eric Wandersleben, department spokesman.

        Effects of intravenous drug use appear in just seconds.

        With injection, there is more risk of fatal overdose and major problems for the heart, circulatory system and liver.

        Tracking the number of heroin deaths is difficult because heroin breaks down into morphine, making it virtually indistinguishable from similar drugs, said Terry Daly, Hamilton County Coroner's spokesman.

        Last year in Hamilton County, heroin was confirmed or considered possible in 28 deaths — more than half of the county's 54 drug deaths.

        During 2000 and 2001 in Butler County, eight people died from heroin-related causes, the coroner's office said. Two of the victims in 2000 were middle-aged people from the upscale suburb of West Chester Township, including Mr. Hounshell, son of Barbara Johnson, 65.

        “He was terrified of needles when he was growing up ...that changed,” Ms. Johnson said.

        She tried every conceivable means to save him, including calling doctors, police and hospitals — all to little or no avail, Ms. Johnson said.

        Ms. Johnson said that when her son wasn't using drugs, he was a joy to be around.

        “What I wouldn't give to put up with him today,” she said.

       Jane Prendergast contributed to this report.



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