• Overcast
  • 61°
  • Comment

'We're all paying:' Heroin spreads misery in US

Posted: April 6, 2014 - 12:07am

On a beautiful Sunday last October, Detective Dan Douglas stood in a suburban Minnesota home and looked down at a lifeless 20-year-old — a needle mark in his arm, a syringe in his pocket. It didn’t take long for Douglas to realize that the man, fresh out of treatment, was his second heroin overdose that day.

“You just drive away and go, ‘Well, here we go again,’” says the veteran cop.

In Butler County, Ohio, heroin overdose calls are so common that the longtime EMS coordinator likens the situation to “coming in and eating breakfast — you just kind of expect it to occur.” A local rehab facility has a six-month wait. One school recently referred an 11-year-old boy who was shooting up intravenously.

Sheriff Richard Jones has seen crack, methamphetamine and pills plague his southwestern Ohio community but calls heroin a bigger scourge. Children have been forced into foster care because of addicted parents; shoplifting rings have formed to raise money to buy fixes.

“There are so many residual effects,” he says. “And we’re all paying for it.”

Heroin is spreading its misery across America. And communities everywhere are indeed paying.

The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman spotlighted the reality that heroin is no longer limited to the back alleys of American life. Once mainly a city phenomenon, the drug has spread — gripping postcard villages in Vermont, middle-class enclaves outside Chicago, the sleek urban core of Portland, Ore., and places in between and beyond.

Cocaine, painkillers and tranquilizers are all used more than heroin, and the latest federal overdose statistics show that in 2010 the vast majority of drug overdose deaths involved pharmaceuticals, with heroin accounting for less than 10 percent. But heroin’s escalation is troubling. Last month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the 45 percent increase in heroin overdose deaths between 2006 and 2010 an “urgent and growing public health crisis.”

In 2007, there were an estimated 373,000 heroin users in the U.S. By 2012, the number was 669,000, with the greatest increases among those 18 to 25. First-time users nearly doubled in a six-year period ending in 2012, from 90,000 to 156,000.

Experts note that many users turned to heroin after a crackdown on prescription drug “pill mills” made painkillers such as OxyContin harder to find and more costly. It’s killing because it can be extremely pure or laced with other powerful narcotics. That, coupled with a low tolerance once people start using again after treatment, is catching addicts off guard.

In hard-hit places, police, doctors, parents and former users are struggling to find solutions and save lives.

“I thought my suburban, middle-class family was immune to drugs such as this,” says Valerie Pap, who lost her son, Tanner, to heroin in 2012 in Anoka County, Minn., and speaks out to try and help others. “I’ve come to realize that we are not immune. ... Heroin will welcome anyone into its grasp.”



The night before Valentine’s Day, some 250 people filed into a church in Spring Lake Park, Minn. There were moms and dads of addicts, as well as children whose parents brought them in hopes of scaring them away from smack.

From the stage, Dan Douglas gripped a microphone as a photograph appeared overhead on a screen: A woman in the fetal position on a bathroom floor. Then another: A woman “on the nod” — passed out with drug paraphernalia and a shoe near her face.

“You just don’t win with heroin,” Douglas told the crowd. “You die or you go to jail.”

It was the third such forum held over two weeks in Anoka County, home to 335,000 people north of Minneapolis. Since 1999, 55 Anoka County residents have died from heroin-related causes. Only one other Minnesota county reported more heroin-related deaths — 58 — and it has a population three-and-a-half times greater than Anoka’s.

Five years ago, county officials were focused on stamping out meth labs. Then investigators noticed a climb in pharmacy robberies, and started finding Percocet and OxyContin during routine marijuana busts.

As prescription drug abuse rose, so, too, did crackdowns aimed at shutting down pill mills and increasing tracking of prescriptions and pharmacy-hopping pill seekers. Users turned to heroin. “It hit us in the face in the form of dead bodies,” says Douglas.

Authorities are working to educate doctors about the dangers of overprescribing painkillers and are fighting to get heroin off the streets. The idea for the forums came not from police but rather from Pap, a third-grade teacher whose youngest son died of a heroin overdose.

Tanner graduated from high school with honors. In the fall of 2012, he was pursuing a psychology degree at the University of Minnesota, and dreamed of becoming a drug counselor. He had not, to his mother’s knowledge, ever used drugs — and certainly not heroin.

Then one day Tanner’s roommates found the 21-year-old unconscious in his bedroom.

Amid her grief, Pap realized something needed to be done to educate others. She met with county officials, and soon after the community forums were developed. At each, Pap shared her family’s story.

“Our lives have been forever changed,” she told the crowd in Spring Lake Park. “Heroin took it all away,”



Brakes screech. The hospital door flies open. A panicked voice shouts: “Help my friend!” An unconscious young man, in the throes of a heroin overdose, is lifted onto a gurney.

It’s known as a “drive-up, drop-off,” and it’s happened repeatedly at Ohio’s Fort Hamilton Hospital. The staff’s quick response and a dose of naloxone, an opiate-reversing drug, bring most patients back. Some are put on ventilators. A few never revive.

“We’ve certainly had our share of deaths,” says Dr. Marcus Romanello, head of the ER. “At least five died that I am acutely aware of ... because I personally cared for them.”

Romanello joined the hospital about two years ago, just as the rise of heroin was becoming noticeable in Hamilton, a blue-collar city of 60,000 people. Now it seems to be reaching into nearly every part of daily life.

“If you stood next to somebody and just started a conversation about heroin, you’d hear: ‘Oh yeah, my nephew’s on heroin. My next-door neighbor’s on heroin,’” says Candy Murray Abbott, who helped her own 27-year-old son through withdrawal.

Heroin-related deaths have more than tripled in Butler County, where Hamilton is the county seat. There were 55 deaths last year, and within one two-week period, the city’s emergency paramedic units responded to 18 heroin overdoses.

Users run the gamut, says EMS veteran Jennifer Mason — from streetwalkers to business executives. They die in cars, public parks, restaurant bathrooms.

Romanello’s hospital saw 200 heroin overdose cases last year. Overdose patients usually bounce back quickly after given naloxone, or Narcan. It works by blocking the brain receptors that opiates latch onto and helping the body “remember” to take in air.

At least 17 states and the District of Columbia allow Narcan to be distributed to the public, and bills are pending in some states to increase access to it. In Ohio, a new law allows a user’s friends or relatives to administer Narcan, on condition that they call 911.

Romanello says his patients are usually relieved and grateful by the time they leave his hospital. “They say, ‘Thank you for saving my life,’ and walk out the door. But then, the withdrawal symptoms start to kick in.”

“You would think that stopping breathing is hitting rock bottom,” adds Mason. “They don’t remember that. ... You’ve blocked the heroin, and they have to have it. They go back out to get more.”



They smile down from photos: recovering addicts holding plates of food at a group picnic last year. From inside Central City Concern in downtown Portland, Ore., David Fitzgerald looks over the faces.

Are they all still sober? Are they all still alive?

“Most of them,” says Fitzgerald, a former addict who leads the mentor program at the rehab clinic. “Not all.”

Heroin cut a gash through the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. Then prescription pills took over until prices rose. Now the percentage of those in treatment for heroin in Oregon is back up to levels not seen since the ‘90s — nearly 8,000 people last year — and the addicts are getting younger.

Central City’s clients reflect that. In 2008, 25 percent of them were younger than 35. Last year the number went to 40 percent.

The crop of younger addicts presents a new problem — finding appropriately aged mentors to match them with. But Fitzgerald has hope in 26-year-old Felecia Padgett. Before sobriety, Padgett found herself selling heroin to people younger than herself, suburban kids rolling up in their parents’ cars. Using heroin, she says, was like “getting to touch heaven.”

Fitzgerald doesn’t yet have money to pay her, and Padgett herself is still in recovery. But she, and others like her, may play a crucial role in confronting the problem as the face of Portland’s heroin addiction gets younger.

“A lot of them aren’t ready at a younger age,” Fitzgerald says. “The drug scene, it’s fast ... it’s different. It’s harder than it was.”


Associated Press National Writer Sharon Cohen contributed to this story. Forliti reported from Minnesota; Sewell from Ohio; Duara from Oregon.

  • Comment

Comments (6) Add comment
ADVISORY: Users are solely responsible for opinions they post here and for following agreed-upon rules of civility. Posts and comments do not reflect the views of this site. Posts and comments are automatically checked for inappropriate language, but readers might find some comments offensive or inaccurate. If you believe a comment violates our rules, click the "Flag as offensive" link below the comment.
Steven Rosales
Steven Rosales 04/06/14 - 09:36 am
Lets just start

making it life sentences for getting caught selling it! That would probably do the trick. Problem with not being harsh with sentencing is that eventually the liberals will want to legalize it like they do pot!

John Johnson
John Johnson 04/06/14 - 11:16 am

Heroin is legal. Havent you ever heard of oxycotton? If not, check out "the oxycotton" express.
Also, most people who smoke ganja dont want to see other drugs legalized. We know full well that you can OD on heroin and we know how terrible the addiction of heroin can be on someone.. But its nothing compared to marijuana. Do you know what the lethal dose of marijuana is? 1500 pound in 15 minutes. Do you know anyone who can smoke 1500 pounds in 15 minutes? Cause if you do, you should tell that guy to contact the local news papers cause he'll be famous.
Also, "liberals" want marijuana legalized, "conservatives" want the average american to be able to purchase an assault rifle without a background check... And somehow the liberals are the danger to society.............

Steven Rosales
Steven Rosales 04/06/14 - 03:16 pm

I probably smoked pot for more years than you have been alive. Pot should not be legal! We dont need to "Dumb Down" our country. We have enough problems as it is. Heroin is a very dangerous drug and we need to make sentencing tougher on people who use and sell. I agree with the prescription drug problems, doctors should be held more culpable for their actions. My mother was addicted to prescription drugs for several years so I know how bad it is. By the way you obviously are uneducated on the subject of gun purchases. I have purchased two ar15 rifles one here and another in Georgia. You already have to get background checks on all firearms

John Johnson
John Johnson 04/06/14 - 06:03 pm
Dumb down?

So youre sayin that all pot smokers are stupid? Did you know Steve Jobs admitted to smoking weed while he was working for apple? Sounds like you made some stupid decisions while you were high and you blamed pot.
Also, i think my point about the guns went over your head. I didnt say that you dont have to go through a background check to purchase a gun, i stated most conservatives want to be able to purchase an assualt rifle without a background check.. And most do.
And youre right, we have a lot of problems but theyre not with marijuana, its with hard drugs like heroin and alcohol. Thousands of people in Juneau use marijuana and if its such a problem, then why arent there more police blotters about people on marijuana doing serious crimes? I think on the last marijuana article, you mentioned one car accident. Just one.
Lastly, you have 2 AR15's, the same style of gun used to murder multiple children in an elemntary, i have a pipe for smoking and not a single person has died as a result of marijuana. I mean, i guess you could take a marijuana leaf and somehow give someone a paper cut with the leaves... But im going to go with guns being a bigger problem in our society than marijuana.

Steven Rosales
Steven Rosales 04/06/14 - 06:43 pm
Guns are problems

and so is Pot. I actually never had issues with Pot but didnt want my kids to see me doing it. Guns protect more people than are harmed actually. Marijuana has led to plenty of death over the years also due to the black market in the lower 48. Smugglers, children, families have been destroyed by illiegal pot. Legal pot doesnt change things that much. There will still be black market pot here just as there still is in Colorado. Banks wont even deal with the legal vendors since its illiegal still in the Feds eyes.

Back to Top


  • Switchboard: 907-586-3740
  • Circulation and Delivery: 907-586-3740
  • Newsroom Fax: 907-586-9097
  • Business Fax: 907-586-9097
  • Accounts Receivable: 907-523-2230
  • View the Staff Directory
  • or Send feedback