Heroin ranks low among health priorities in Alaska

ANCHORAGE — Some states, including Alaska, are reporting a rise in heroin use as many addicts shift from more costly and harder-to-get prescription opiates to this cheaper alternative. A look at what’s happening in Alaska:

The problem: Heroin is a relatively small problem in Alaska, falling below issues the state considers public health priorities, including obesity, tobacco use and public water system fluoridation.

“While heroin use is a serious and growing problem for Alaskans and other Americans, and one that needs to be taken very seriously, our highest priorities are on issues that impact the public’s health most broadly,” Alaska’s chief medical officer Ward Hurlburt said in a statement.

The numbers: Fewer than 20 deaths where heroin might have played a role were reported between 2002 and 2010, according to the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics.

The number of people being treated for painkiller addiction, which could include heroin, has grown steadily from 147 in 2009 to 193 in 2013, with other people on waiting lists to get treatment. In Fairbanks, it’s estimated that a needle exchange program serves between 250 and 300 people a year, with three of every four a heroin user.

Solutions: A bill that passed the state Senate last year would reduce the penalty for possessing a small amount of certain drugs, including heroin. The bill would make the crime a misdemeanor instead of a felony if a person has not been convicted of more than two drug-related offenses. Senate Bill 56, which has not been taken up by the state House this year, is in line with the smart justice movement, which stresses that the length and the nature of punishment fit the severity of a crime.

Under a 2006 state law, manslaughter charges can be filed if a person dies directly as a result of ingesting a Schedule IA substance, one with a high degree of danger or probable danger, including heroin.

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