Doctors commonly prescribe opioid painkillers after a painful surgery or other bodily harm has been done to one of their patients. In the last 10 years the abuse of these highly addictive medications has been on the rise. Thanks to many new drug take back programs and efforts to educate citizens about the long term of effects of the abuse of these drugs, those numbers have gone down nationwide.
Unfortunately numbers of a new kind of drug abuse have risen-painkillers have become a gateway drug to an addiction to heroin. Heroin addiction is on the rise all over the country, and even Ashland has seen the effects. In 2016 Ashland saw 13 heroin overdoses, three of which were fatal.
Heroin is not a new drug; its heyday was in the 1960s and 70s. At that time it was taken as an injectable and the stigma surrounding a drug that was used intravenously is what led to its decline in popularity. It was viewed as a dirty drug and for years that stigma helped to keep people away from the dangerous opioid.
Now it has taken on a powder form, allowing users to snort the drug. This shift in form is what has led to its upswing in popularity as the stigma of shooting up is no longer attached. It is now cheaper, and more accessible than ever before.
Chip Watts, Ashland Police Department’s Public Information Officer, has been leading the efforts to educate folks about the dangers of heroin. He sees the epidemic as a business, an illicit business, but a business all the same.
“It’s about marketing. Mixing fentanyl with heroin is a marketing tactic as much as anything else,” Watts explained. “If a particular dealer has that product and that product is in demand because people feel like they are going to get a better high from the heroin-fentanyl mix, that’s a marketing tactic.”
Fentanyl is an opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin. Typically it is used to treat the pain of cancer patients. When mixed with heroin it creates an even more powerful high, but often users do not know how much of the drug they are ingesting and this leads to fatal overdoses.
As heroin usage spikes so do crime rates. Residential burglary, commercial burglary, and shoplifting are all crimes that seem to be popular among heroin users.
“People who are addicted to heroin or opioids are breaking into houses to steal one of the following things,” Watts said. “Electronics games, prescription meds, because you know if they can find the opioid there then they are already where they want to be, cash or jewelry.”
Often times Watts and the other officers can track when the next crime streak will take place by how much is stolen. If they can make enough money from the items they take then things will say quiet until the next time they need money for drugs.
Of course this issue goes far beyond Ashland, Hanover, or even Virginia. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse the number of heroin users has been increasing since 2007.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in the Florida swamp or New York City or Ashland, Virginia. It’s everywhere,” explained Ashland’s narcotics investigator. He wished to remain anonymous due to the nature of his work.
He went on to explain that much like the shoplifting patterns that emerge, there is often a tragic pattern of overdoses that can be tracked. “We can almost tell when a bad batch, you know a very fentanyl heavy, fentanyl laced supply comes in because you’ll have several over doses in one area.”
Watts has worked with folks who are addicted to opioids, he knows that no one wakes up one day and decides to become a heroin addict. Drug addiction illness and becoming clean is a tricky and sometimes deadly process. Quitting cold turkey can kill a person, and often times it becomes an inescapable way of life. Friends and family separate themselves from addicts. Leaving them surrounded only by other addicts.
“As I’ve seen with somebody’s journey through addiction who is now clean, a person ideally has to separate themselves not only from the drug. They have to separate themselves form the entire lifestyle,” Watts said.
One way they are hoping to help people find help is a program called A Way Forward. It’s a simple concept; when they arrest someone they suspect of having a drug problem they give them a card with four different drug treatment resources numbers to call. One of which is the APD drug helpline voicemail. This number allows you to speak with an officer anonymously without having to come into the office. Anyone who calls can have their questions answered without having to visit the police department in person.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” Watts said.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from addiction the APD drug helpline voicemail number is (804) 412-0620.