Commonwealth Journal

September 26, 2013

Heroin is no longer a big city problem ... it’s becoming more prevalent right here in Pulaski County

by Heather Tomlinson
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset — Heroin isn’t just a “big city” problem anymore. Thanks to a number of factors — economics, market demand, and safeguards placed on other opiates — it’s very real, and gaining in prevalence, in Pulaski County.

“This is going to be a huge problem in the next five years,” said Pulaski County Sheriff Todd Wood.

It’s been several years since local narcotics investigators began seeing heroin on the streets of Pulaski County. In fact, when undercover officers with the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department started purchasing the substance, it was 2008. But they weren’t concerned then because heroin was still, by far, among the lesser-trafficked drugs in Pulaski County.

“Nobody wanted it (heroin) back then because the pills were so prevalent,” said Det. Rodney Stevens, with the sheriff’s department.

But Stevens and fellow narcotics investigator Det. Daryl Kegley are seeing the shift in the drug market. Recent safeguards put in place on certain opiate pills — specifically OxyContin — have left addicts looking for the same high in different places.

OxyContin, one of the most well-known opiate painkillers, shot up in popularity almost immediately after its introduction to the market in 1996. The drug was becoming so heavily used among addicts that the U.S. government pressured manufacturer Perdue Pharma to come up with a reformulated pill in order to curb abuse. The new version of OxyContin is more difficult to crush or melt down, which in turn makes it more difficult to snort.

Other opiate painkillers — hydrocodone (known as Vicodin, Lortab, etc.), morphine, tramadol, and more — are obtainable as well, but the catch is getting enough of the substance to keep an addiction going. The more a user takes a drug, the more his body needs to feed the addiction and avoid physical withdrawal symptoms. This isn’t usually possible when an addict goes through a doctor. And so, they have to turn to the streets and pay upwards of $80 for one or two pills, depending on the area.

Another illicit substance, one that shot up in popularity so fast that officials scrambled to crack down on its use, is methamphetamine. But that drug, too, has gone down in use, mainly because pseudoephedrine, an anti-congestion drug that is essential to meth making, is so difficult to get. Those who do purchase the drug are placed in a tracking system, and they’re only allowed so much of the drug in a certain time period.

And so, heroin has gained a foothold.

“Two years ago, we could’ve said who the main people were pushing heroin in town,” said Stevens. “We went from a couple to a whole lot more. Now, we stop one dealer, there are three or four more ready to take his place.”

Stevens and Kegley said around 50 percent of their drug buys now involve heroin — leaving pills, meth and other substances taking up the other 50 percent.

Most recently, the sheriff’s department arrested an Ohio man and Florida man on Wednesday, Sept. 18 after receiving a tip the two were selling heroin out of a hotel room in Somerset. After nine hours of surveillance, search warrants were issued for two hotel rooms and the vehicle of the suspects. The search netted 16 grams of heroin, valued at more than $5,000, and around $2,400 in cash.

One of the defendants, Matthew R. Stock, 26, of Vandalia, Ohio, pleaded guilty Thursday through the Rocket Docket program to one count of first-degree trafficking in a controlled substance for selling more than two grams of heroin to a confidential informant.

Kegley and Stevens said one-tenth of a gram of heroin is going for around $35 in Somerset. That may be a little high compared to the going rate in large cities — think around $15 for one-tenth of a gram. But it’s all about economics. With more supply in a city comes more competition. Those who bring the drug to rural areas such as Pulaski County are working off the fact that there are fewer competitive forces, and more demand.

The trickle-down effect is alarming, and Wood said heroin was one of several topics at a recent Kentucky Sheriff’s Association conference.

“Most sheriffs across the Commonwealth are finding that heroin has become their leading problem in the drug world,” said Wood, who noted that the heroin pipeline seems to extend from Columbus, Ohio, and Detroit, Mich., straight into the heart of Kentucky. “They’re coming down into this region and bringing narcotics.”

David Gilbert, former director of the Lake Cumberland Area Drug Task Force, said he began seeing Mexican black tar heroin in the area as early as 2011 and 2012, just before his retirement.

“We rarely saw heroin on the streets of Somerset from 1979 until around 2012,” said Gilbert. “ ... By 2005 and 2006, everyone agreed that eventually, Mexican heroin would be cropping up if we tightened up other drugs,” said Gilbert.

Stevens and Kegley agree. Although Kegley came across black tar heroin — sticky and known for its less-refined nature and colored dark brown, nearly black — in 2004, he didn’t see it again until several years ago.

“I don’t remember ever being on the street until 2010,” said Kegley.

And on the street it is. Pulaski County Constable Mike Wallace has arrested upwards of eight people connected to heroin possession or trafficking in 2012 and 2013 during routine traffic stops.

“It’s out there, any time you turn around,” said Wallace. “ ... It’s normal to find heroin now.”

Wallace has found anywhere from less than one gram to more than 11 grams on defendants.

“Usually, if they have that much, they’re trafficking,” said Wallace, who noted he’s become “real leery” of needles during his traffic stops, especially when he performs searches on defendants.

“I almost got stuck with one the other day, because I asked him if he had any needles on him, he said no, and as I was reaching in his pocket, there was a needle,” said Wallace.

Black tar heroin isn’t as common in Somerset as a light brown, grainy version of the substance.  Heroin is derived from the morphine extracted from poppy plants — a plant grown in warm, low-humidity climates such as the Middle East, Mid- and South-America, and Mexico. Gilbert said if it’s in Kentucky, there’s a good chance it came from Mexico.

“We’re on the same continent, and we have very porous borders,” said Gilbert.

But Colombian heroin also has a presence in the U.S.

And the heroin can have vastly different levels of purity, or potency, depending on how many hands it passes through. That’s where the real danger lies.

Each person the heroin passes through will most likely “cut” the heroin, adding things to it in order to increase its volume and make more money. But with each cut, the purity goes down.

“This piece (of heroin) may have x-amount in it, and the next piece could have triple that,” said Kegley.

So what happens if an addict, expecting heroin with 50 percent purity, gets it at 75 percent purity? There’s a good chance they’ll accidentally overdose, unaware of just how much of the opiate they’re putting in their system.

“At some point, you’re going to overdose because you don’t know what purity you’re getting,” said Stevens.

According to the 2012 Kentucky Overdose Fatality Report, prepared by the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, autopsied overdose deaths attributed to heroin use increased 550 percent from 2011 to 2012.

22 overdose fatalities were tied to heroin use in 2011. In 2012, that number stood at 143. In all, there were 1,004 overdose deaths in Kentucky in 2012.

And the overdose deaths aren’t limited to any age. According to the report, the youngest overdose fatality (taking into account overdose deaths due to any drug, not just heroin) was 16 years old. The oldest was 72 years old.

In Pulaski County, 15 people died from a drug overdose in 2011. In 2012, 19 people died from an overdose, according to the report. Although that number doesn’t break those deaths down into separate drugs, the report notes that, in all overdose deaths in the state, heroin was detected in 19.56 percent of those patients.

Also among those substances detected in autopsy reports was morphine. That substance was detected in a separate 32.01 percent of overdose victims.

Heroin is derived from morphine, and it can break down within minutes.

According to information from the Mayo Clinic on opiates, heroin (diacetylmorphine) is a synthetic opiate made from morphine and is rarely detectable in body fluids. It has a half-life of a few minutes — which means heroin, in the form it entered the body as, only remains that way for mere minutes. Heroin also often contains small amounts of acetylcodeine, also known as the painkiller codeine.

And so, levels of morphine and codeine detected in an overdose patient may actually point to heroin use.

As the Kentucky Overdose Fatality Report states, “ ... many of the cases with morphine detected may in fact involve heroin, as morphine is the major pharmaceutical substance detected in the blood after injection of heroin.”

Somerset-Pulaski County EMS Chief Billy Duncan said his department has been preparing for higher overdose incidences — thanks to the unpredictability of the potency of heroin — since the drug began making its way into rural America.

“We watch these increases and stuff, and prepare for it before it even arrives,” said Duncan. “You see it in one part of the United States, and it’ll trend.”

Prepared or not, local officials know it’s already here — and they don’t expect it to fade any time soon.

“We hear more about heroin than anything right now,” said Stevens. “And the sad thing is, it’s only going to get worse ... I think we’re just starting to see the tip of the iceberg.”