Delaware’s addiction to heroin

 (Shirley Min/WHYY)

(Shirley Min/WHYY)

Some are saying that use of the drug has reached epidemic proportions in the state.

Once confined to inner-city neighborhoods and those living in poverty, the problem of heroin addiction has grown more widespread. A recently-published nationwide study found the majority of heroin users are suburban white men and women in their 20’s.

In less than three decades, Delaware has witnessed an eightfold increase in heroin users seeking help from state-funded addiction treatment centers. When Delaware Health and Social Services initially tracked the numbers in 1987, the state registered 397 heroin addicts; in 2013, that number skyrocketed to 2,750. These numbers do not include addicts seeking help from private facilities.

This, as the state grapples with its eighth overdose death linked to heroin laced with the synthetic painkiller fentanyl. Seven people died during the state’s last fentanyl-tainted heroin overdose outbreak in 2006.

Delaware Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Director Steve Dettwyler blamed prescription painkillers for the jump in heroin abuse. He said the number of people addicted to legal opiates presenting themselves for treatment increased from a handful in the 1980’s to a high of 1,793 in 2012. Last year, 1,261 individuals enrolled in public treatment programs.

However, with the state clamping down on access to legal painkillers and doctors changing their prescribing practices, people have moved to heroin, which is cheaper and offers a similar sense of euphoria.

The street value for one 40 mg Percoset, for example, might cost $40, whereas a bag of heroin costs $5. A bundle, which contains 13 bags, costs $45 or $50.

“When we saw that shift, we definitely saw an increase in how many clients we’re beginning to see and the problem, I think, just grew at that point,” said Leslie Baker, the program manager at Brandywine Counseling and Community Services, an outpatient opioid addiction treatment center in Wilmington.

At BCCS, users in recovery are administered doses of medications, such as methadone, to curb heroin withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

Baker said at least 70 percent of her clients are heroin users. 

Supply and Demand

Jennifer Whitehead, 32, struggled with addiction for a decade. She began experimenting with painkillers when she was 15-years-old, eventually graduating to heroin.

“Since the first time I put an opiate in my body, I knew that that was kind of what was missing,” she said. “And from that moment on I just sought it out constantly.”

She eventually got clean with help from Brandywine Counseling, but not before spending two years in prison.

“To spend two years in prison for a missed probation appointment because I suffer from a disease [of addiction], I think, is pretty wrong. Because during the two years I spent there, I didn’t get a lot of what you would think treatment should be,” said Whitehead, who thinks the punitive nature towards addiction causes undue trauma to those who want to recover.

And while there has been a slight paradigm shift from punitive policies toward drug addiction, Delaware State Police Spokesman Sergeant Paul Shavack said in many cases State Troopers’ hands are tied.

In the meantime, the DSP is implementing a two-pronged approach to interrupt the heroin supply to Delaware.

“You have to cut off the choke points of where it’s coming into Delaware,” said Shavack, who said the majority of the state’s supply is coming from Philadelphia and Baltimore, which are sourcing it directly from Afghanistan and Mexico. “All of law enforcement in Delaware is actively investigating those choke points in order to disrupt them.”

The second prong to help eliminate this problem, Shavack said, is to eliminate demand through education, rehabilitation and treatment.

Impact on families

Tyler Keister came from a good family. He was funny, smart and athletic. But two days before Christmas 2012, he died of an unintentional heroin overdose. He was 24-years-old.

“You’re never over something like this,” his father, Don Keister, said.

Keister said his son initially started abusing prescription painkillers and was in and out of rehab in Colorado and Florida before he succumbed to heroin.

“It’s a choice when they first begin to use, they don’t choose to be an addict. Someone who smokes cigarettes doesn’t choose to get lung cancer,” Keister said.

Unfortunately, Tyler’s story is not unique. Thousands of families in Delaware are affected by what many say is a heroin epidemic, including the King family.

“I just thought we were going to bury her, I really did,” said Becky King, whose daughter Stephanie was also hooked on heroin by way of legally-prescribed Percocet.

“We would find things missing, pieces of jewelry, some old family heirlooms,” she said. “It was just constant lies, but she’s my child and I wasn’t going to give up on her. That wasn’t my daughter Steph, that was the addict and that was the disease taking over,”

Daughter Stephanie recalled her experience with the drug.

“With the heroin, it just, in my mind as well as my body, it just couldn’t be without it,” Stephanie said. “My long hair turned into straw, my skin turned from a tan to yellow.”

She tried to get clean, but relapsed often; she even tried committing suicide.

In spite of everything, Stephanie is in recovery, now 20 months sober and helping others who are trying to break free from their addictions. She works at Gaudenzia in Wilmington, which offers 135 drug and alcohol treatment programs in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

“I just try to help others now, and hopefully another parent doesn’t lose their child,” she said.

Attack Addiction

The Kings and the Keisters know each other through Attack Addiction. Don Keister and his wife Jeanne founded the group shortly after their son Tyler died. The main purpose of the group is to eliminate the stigma of addiction and to educate and bring awareness of addiction as a disease.

Attack Addiction also serves as a resource for families, providing much-needed information and support. King recalled feeling helpless and hopeless after learning about Stephanie’s heroin addiction, not knowing what to do or where to go for help.

“We survived this storm, we’ve come out of it, and I just want to equip other families with the tools to get through it and to know where to go for resources,” King said.

DHSS consulted with members of Attack Addiction. The state agency is preparing to unveil a new public awareness campaign that underscores the group’s message, that addiction is a disease.

“The science supports what we see as a chronic, physiological response to pain medication and heroin. The public, I don’t think, understands that completely yet,” said Steve Dettwyler, director of the state’s substance abuse division. “So there’s still a lot of blaming the victim, which leads to people not wanting to seek services, even when they need treatment desperately.”

DHSS spokeswoman Jill Fredel said that the campaign will also focus on education and prevention and will include a website that serves as a clearinghouse for assistance.

But Dettwyler admitted that for the number of addicts in the state, Delaware needs to do more.

“The state itself manages a number of different types of programs. We have outpatient, we have residential treatment, we have detox facilities, [but] given the demand and the growth spike in [heroin addiction] right now, there really are insufficient resources in the state,” he said.

Fredel said the state is working to increase private and public access, not only for adults, but also children.

“The state has to do a number of things, Number one, we have to increase the number of beds, number two, we have to work on the police and the courts and try to come up with a system there, that we’re not incarcerating our problem, and then we need the treatment,” Keister said.

“If this were the flu, you know we mobilize resources for H1N1 and for other public health epidemics that come out,” King said. “So why aren’t we doing the same for this?”

WHYY-TV looks into Delaware’s heroin epidemic Friday night on First at 5:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.