Heroin on the rise

Coos County's struggle with drugs is poised to get worse.

Experts fear that opiates such as heroin will soon replace meth as the scourge of the South Coast, bringing with it a new level of disease, dependency and desperation.

Heroin-related arrests in the region jumped to 41 in the past year – five years ago, police arrested only two people for crimes linked to the drug.

Toby Floyd, director of the South Coast Interagency Narcotics Team, said those arrests were only "skimming the surface" of heroin's new presence on the streets.

The rise of heroin is the result of a combined rise in prescription-drug abuse on the South Coast.

The key ingredient in opiates, opioids, give users a euphoric buzz and are highly addictive. Many prescription drug users are turning to heroin as a cheaper and more intense opioid hit.

"We have always had heroin, but never as prevalent," Floyd said.

Floyd said a major reason for the recent cross-over was a change in the chemical formula of opiates such as OxyContin in 2010. The prescription pain reliever once was heavily abused and sold on the black market, but its manufacturer made it less easy for abusers to smoke, snort or inject.

On the streets of Coos Bay, heroin now costs only $25 for a dose compared with about $80 for a high-strength pill of OxyContin.

The increase in demand for heroin is leading to an increase in supply in the South Coast, said Floyd.

"I think that it's going to reach a level that we have seen locally with the meth epidemic," Floyd said. "That's speculation on my part, but it's entrenched here now – heroin/prescription-drug abuse."

Floyd isn't alone. A growing number of drug experts say that the U.S. is floating on a rising tide of heroin. Oregon officials fear that the South Coast, for a variety of socio-economic reasons, will be the hardest hit in the state.

While the meth epidemic has been costly and painful for Coos County, they also fear the toll of heroin could become far greater.

‘Appalachians of the West'

ADAPT, Coos County's addiction treatment network, is treating a growing number of people for heroin and prescription drug addictions this year.

John Gardin, ADAPT's director of behavioral health and research, warns that just as cocaine ruled the '80s and meth the '90s, opioids will be America's drug for the decade.

"I don't know what will come next, but I think that's what we are seeing with prescription drug use," he said.

Gardin said the South Coast was the most vulnerable region in Oregon because of its higher-than-10-percent unemployment rate and entrenched poverty.

The region sometimes is called "the Appalachians of the West" by experts.

"The Appalachians in the East are known for intensive opiate abuse," Gardin said. "And it's because of the high poverty and lack of hope in the community."

As users increasingly turn from prescription opioids to heroin, he feared it meant bigger health implications than the region's well-publicized meth epidemic.

Chronic users may develop liver or kidney disease, abscesses, collapsed veins and infection of the heart lining and valves. The bigger fear is the spread of blood-borne diseases.

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