Delaware agencies combat rising heroin problem

 3,000 bags of heroin seized from a 16-year-old in Wilmington last month (Photo courtesy of the Wilmington Police Department)

3,000 bags of heroin seized from a 16-year-old in Wilmington last month (Photo courtesy of the Wilmington Police Department)

As the state continues to crack down on prescription drug abuse, an old street drug is making a comeback.

Heroin, an opiate which hasn’t been popular since the 1980s and 90s, has spiked significantly in use and in sales in Delaware since 2010.

“We first noticed the increase in 2011 where we had over 500 heroin related investigations,” explained Sgt. Paul Shavack of the Delaware State Police Department. “This doubled to 1,000 in 2012 and as of August of this year, we’re over 1,000 so we’re on pace to double that for 2013.”

He said approximately 50 percent of his department’s busts have been in New Castle County while the other half is split between Kent and Sussex Counties.

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Crackdown leads to rise

Law enforcement and the state health department correlate the spike in heroin to the crack down on prescription drug sales.

In 2010, the state passed the Delaware Prescription Monitoring Program which created a database for doctors, pharmacies and law enforcement agencies to monitor all controlled substance prescriptions.

“In some cases we found records of people who were going to four or five doctors at a time and getting a 30-day prescription,” explained Kevin Ann Huckshorn, state director for the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

Huckshorn explained that patients would overuse the medication or sell it on the street. However, once the monitoring program was implemented, the street market started to dry up and addicts turned to the next best thing, heroin.

The “new” heroin is more pure and can be ingested through the nose rather than older methods of injecting or smoking the drug. It’s also one of the cheapest highs out there and is readily available.

On the street, one milligram of oxycodone sells for around $40 while a bag of heroin, .020 grams, is $5, according to Shavack.

The Purer heroin is also more potent and Huckshorn said they’ve seen a spike in overdoses.

New Castle County EMS Chief Lawrence Tan said his department has also incurred an increase in the number of calls they’ve received for potential overdoses.

“Between September 15 of last year and September 15 of this year, New Castle County paramedics went on 977 overdose or poisoning dispatched incidents,” explained Tan. “Almost 700 of them potentially involved a narcotic or heroin or involved someone who was not alert or may have been unconscious, which is typically the response you see when someone has overdosed.”

Tan explained the drug works as a depressant on the user’s central nervous system.  

“It knocks their repertory drive so they typically go into repertory arrest,” explained Tan. “After four to six minutes of not breathing you go into cardiac arrest.”

The largest group of substance abusers (which includes alcohol and other drugs) are young adults age 21-34 followed by those ages 35-44, according to Huckshorn’s 2012 data. She added that the group of 21-24 year olds has become larger in 2013.

“There are no socioeconomic boundaries to this to the grip of heroin,” added Shavack. “We’re seeing it in the affluent neighborhoods, we’re seeing it in the suburbs, and we’re seeing it in the city so it has no boundaries. We’re seeing kids 18-25 addicted to this.”

Fighting heroin

While the prescription drug monitoring program is significantly helping to reduce the number of illegal prescription drug sales, police departments across the state are working together to combat street drugs.

“Every police department in Delaware, we share information and intelligence on our investigations to crack down on these mid-level drug dealers and to choke the supply that is coming into Delaware,” said Shavack.

And drug units are making significant busts. Between January and August of this year, the Wilmington Police Department’s drug unit collected more than 657 grams of heroin with a street value of $434,000.

During a raid last month, officers arrested a 16-year-old for possession of 3,000 bags of the heroin with an estimated street value of nearly $36,000. In February, the unit seized 5,925 bags of heroin totaling 118.5 grams worth nearly $60,000 from a Wilmington home.

Road to recovery

As far as the spike in heroin users, Huckshorn said they expect the increase to level out because fewer people are becoming hooked on prescriptions. “So less people falling back on heroin,” she said.

For those already addicted, kicking the habit isn’t easy. According to Steven Dettwyler, director of community mental health and addiction services for the division of substance abuse, keeping up with the demand for treatment is a challenge for the state.

“All of our programs are so busy so access is getting harder and harder and that’s true across the state,” said Dettwyler. “If it’s an emergency we can put people in emergency rooms or a detox center but access to treatment is not easy because the demand has got so high.”

He said there’s usually a wait to get into an opiate treatment program which typically dispenses suboxone and methadone to those battling addiction.

The other treatment option is outpatient therapy such as counseling or a 12-step program.

Treatment services can be found on The Delaware Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health’s website.

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