Heroin in the High Country
June 30, 2014
Signs of heroin use
Constricted pupils that demonstrate little or no reaction to light
Pulse rate, blood pressure and body temperature all down
Flaccid muscle tone
Depressed, drowsy and droopy
Effects last 4-6 hours for heroin, 24 hours for methadone
Overdose signs: Slow, shallow breathing, clammy skin, convulsions, coma
Source: Eagle County Sheriff’s Office
Editor's Note: This is the first of a four-part series about heroin regaining a foothold in Colorado's ski resort communities.
EAGLE COUNTY — If you live in the High Country, you're at the crossroads of the heroin highways, say regional law enforcement leaders.
Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 24 are two of the country's busiest drug trafficking arteries, and Colorado's Central Rockies resorts are at the crossroads — or in between the crosshairs if you're a cop trying to stop it.
Thing is, heroin is hard to spot until its work is finished.
"It shows up in dead bodies," said an Eagle County undercover cop.
Jim Schrant is Drug Enforcement Agency's Resident Agent in Charge for Western Colorado.
Not so long ago they'd see one heroin death per year in most of Western Colorado. Now we're seeing more and more, Schrant said. In the last year, the Roaring Fork Valley had one, Durango had a couple, Grand Junction has had a few and Avon saw one.
"We're seeing an increase in the availability of heroin, especially in small Colorado ski towns, and a corresponding increase in heroin overdoses, deaths and hospitalizations," Schrant said. "Relative to places like Denver, it's clearly not close to those numbers. It's not kilos and kilos of heroin, but the distribution is expanding."
Help, don't hammer
The undercover officer, who asked that his name not be published, said he sees all sorts of stupidity and meanness in his job, and doubts it will ever stop.
"They've been trying to stop people from smoking since Columbus returned to Europe," he said.
His brother is a recovering addict, who has been clean for 10 years, and that's why he keeps fighting against drug use.
"It's worth it if I can keep one more kid off drugs. I don't want to see any family go through what my family went through," he said.
It's always been here, he said. It goes in cycles, and it's been in an upswing for the past few years.
"The thing about heroin is that they always need more. If they're on it, they need more to feel right. If they don't get it, they get dope sick," the officer said.
Addicts need to be helped, not hammered, he said.
"Our goal is not to throw them in prison and throw away the key. We want them to get the help they need," he said. "The addict mentality is, 'I can beat this. It won't happen to me.' But it will. It happens all the time."
It's all about the Benjamin's
Cartels smuggle heroin for the same reason anyone is in any business.
"There's a big profit in it," said Joe Hoy, Eagle County Sheriff.
Heroin means more money and fewer transportation problems, Hoy explained.
"It's easier to get into the country than other drugs. You don't have bundles and bundles of marijuana or bricks of cocaine. It's smaller and more portable," he said.
In Asia, it originates in places like Afghanistan and is distributed throughout Europe and other parts of Asia. The U.S. supply line starts in Mexico, Hoy said.
"Interstate 70 is a major drug thoroughfare, as is Highway 24 because it runs all the way up from the Mexican border," Hoy said. "To the credit of the DEA and border patrol, they stop a great deal of it, but in my view we don't have enough people on the border to stop it all."
They're catching more of it, though. On the southwestern border, heroin seizures rose 232 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to DEA data.
"Our targets are not the abusers, but the organizations that distribute this stuff," Schrant said.
Says Hoy: "We're more focused on bigger busts. You can start with a local dealer and try to work your way up the chain, but that's a tough ladder to climb."
Heroin is part of the opioid family, a derivative of the same chemical that gives us oxycodone, the prescription pain medication. Heroin is not cheap. Neither are prescription drugs, Schrant said.
Oxycodone costs about $1 per milligram on the street. Street grade heroin costs about $300 a gram (1,000 milligrams in a gram, so about 30 cents per gram).
As the availability goes up, the purity goes up as dealers try to stay competitive.
"The heroin that was abused 10 years ago, the purity was 20 percent. Now it's more than 20 percent," Schrant said.
Coloradans play hard and can get hurt badly, and the undercover officer said we're in the top five states in the nation for people addicted to pain killers.
"When they can't get that, they sometimes switch to heroin. It's accessible and less expensive," Hoy said.
Federal data proves Hoy correct. In 2010, the U.S. saw 19,154 opioid drug deaths. Of those, 3,094 involved heroin. The rest were from painkillers. A federal study found that four of five people who started using heroin previously abused pain killers.
If you think it's an ethnic issue, then think again. That same data says 88 percent of those who died from heroin were white, half were younger than 34 and almost a fifth were ages 15 to 24. Heroin deaths of teenagers and young adults tripled in the first decade of this century.
DEA crackdowns on pill mills curtailed that supply, Schrant said. Also, new formulations have made the pills harder to abuse.
Pharmacists and doctors are also clamping down on prescription drugs. That makes it a simple matter of supply and demand, Schrant said.
"We arrest a pill mill doctor and that supply is cut off, or doctors and pharmacies talk to one another and the supply is cut off," Schrant said. "Communities see an upswing of burglaries by people trying to get the stuff."
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.