Heroin may not get talked about much in the Tri-Cities, but police know it’s around.
“It’s killing people, and this is happening across the country,” said Benton County Sheriff Steve Keane.
So far this year, at least five people have died in Benton and Franklin counties as the result of overdoses of heroin and other opioid drugs.
Opioids are medications that relieve pain, such as hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and heroin. They include synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and methadone.
There have been three deaths related to opioid overdose in Benton County in 2016, said Roy McLean, Benton County chief deputy coroner. Two have been related to methamphetamine.
Out of six 2016 overdose deaths in Franklin County, two have been heroin-related, said Dan Blasdel, Franklin County coroner.
“Since meth is getting harder to get and the resources to make it are harder to get, it seems that heroin is making a comeback,” Blasdel said.
Nationally, at least 78 people die each day from opioid-related overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Washington, more than 600 people died from opioid overdoses in 2014, according to the state health department.
They’re coming from all walks of life. There are so many people who are addicted right now. It’s just a downhill from there once they get hooked.
Andy Corral, police detective
Many law-abiding citizens get legal prescriptions for pain pills, said Andy Corral, a police detective assigned to a drug task force in the region.
When the pills run out, and they can’t get any more, they often seek other alternatives, such as cheap heroin on the black market.
“They’re coming from all walks of life,” Corral said. “There are so many people who are addicted right now. It’s just downhill from there once they get hooked.”
A bigger threat looms
What concerns officials even more than heroin is fentanyl, a narcotic sometimes prescribed as a powerful pain medication.
Illegally manufactured fentanyl is often laced with heroin — it can be anywhere from 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.
Large amounts of fentanyl can leak through skin and kill anyone who handles it.
Most drug screens only test for pure drugs such as heroin, and do not reveal whether fentanyl played a role in someone’s death, Keane said.
“It could be an epidemic, but nobody knows because nobody’s testing for it,” Keane said. “It’s difficult to get a handle on how bad things really are.”
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is the only organization that includes fentanyl in its lab tests, Franklin County Sheriff Jim Raymond said.
“They do a much more extensive look at their narcotics,” Raymond said.
There were 3,344 fentanyl submissions sent to labs in 2014, compared with 942 in 2013, according to the DEA.
Since fentanyl levels in heroin vary, the DEA released a video that cautions officers on handling the drug. The video describes the drug as a “real threat to law enforcement.”
Inmates who attempt to smuggle these drugs into jails are in danger. If they know they’re about to be arrested, some will hide drugs in body cavities.
If any drugs leak through, they could pass out from an overdose.
“You find them unresponsive for no reason,” Keane said. “We can’t cavity search without probable cause.”
Seeking ways to help
For heroin, treatment may be more difficult because, unlike some drugs, dependence is physical and mental.
“It’s not just in your head,” Raymond said. “You are sick.”
There are, however, community members already looking for ways to help addicts.
Lynn Moore, 52, of Kennewick, has been sober for two years after battling drug addictions since age 15.
The mother of three goes to Narcotics Anonymous meetings and has continued treatment for past abuses of meth, LSD, painkillers and marijuana.
She has also met many people addicted to heroin.
“People in these recovery programs, our desire is just to pass the good news on that there’s hope,” Moore said. “There’s light at the end of that tunnel.”
The hardest part is getting addicts to admit they have a problem, Moore said.
“You’ve got to be able to talk to somebody, get it out,” she said.
Lourdes Counseling Center in Richland, Narcotics Anonymous and local church groups could also help, so long as an addict is willing to face that they need help, Moore said.
People in these recovery programs, our desire is just to pass the good news on that there’s hope. There’s light at the end of that tunnel.
Lynn Moore, recovering addict
Jeff Allgaier, a doctor at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, founded Ideal Option as a treatment clinic because he wanted to do more than just overprescribe medications or turn patients away from the emergency room.
“What I saw was thousands coming in who were in opiate withdrawals,” Allgaier said.
Many patients who seek help for addiction may feel like they don’t have many choices, which is why some search for the quickest ways to obtain harmful prescription medications with cash at no-questions-asked shops.
These practices or shops, which allow someone to pay cash for prescription painkillers and opiates, can contribute to the heroin epidemic, Allgaier said. That’s one of the main things the government wants to avoid.
Many treatment centers such as Allgaier’s look into alternatives such as Suboxone, a drug commonly prescribed to recovering heroin users.
Suboxone and other similar drugs allow for patients to receive amounts that their body physically needs, but without the side effect of making them high or impaired.
There’s another key benefit.
“Unlike methadone, you don’t overdose,” Allgaier said.
On July 6, the White House announced new regulations to help cut down on opioid use in the U.S., pledging $1.1 billion to help pay for new programs. Known as the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, it passed the House on July 8 and the Senate on July 13.
Washington will be eligible to receive at least $20 million, according to the president’s proposal. Though it’s not clear how much money the Tri-Cities may receive, it could help those who need more treatment options.
Before July, Allgaier and other doctors could only prescribe safer withdrawal medications to 100 people at a time.
That number is now 275.
Allgaier is confident that clinics like his and the new government regulations will help combat what he describes as “one of the biggest public health epidemics” in the country.
“It’s going to save hundreds of thousands of lives across the nation and thousands in the Tri-Cities,” he said.