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Hike in heroin use a sobering reality for law enforcement

State struggles with rising number of heroin overdoses, availability of illicit narcotics
by: Stover E. Harger III

It was meant to strike a hefty blow to the region's heroin supply.

A two-month Columbia County Narcotics Team investigation led to a large-scale bust Feb. 24 at the Gresham house of suspected drug dealers Maribel Sebastian-Evangelista, 31, and Amadeo Lupercio-Quezada, 32.

Along with an assortment of narcotics and paraphernalia in the couple's home, police reported finding candles burning at a shrine to Mexican folk hero Jesus Malverde, the unofficial patron saint of drug traffickers.

And while police say the arrest cut off a large amount of drugs flowing through the region, the effect may be temporary.

Officers are well aware of a sobering reality - where there is demand, there is always supply. Heroin will find a way.

'There is always somebody higher up the chain,' said St. Helens Police Detective Sgt. Phillip Edwards.

Though it seemed 10 years ago that the Northwest's thirst for heroin had been washed away by a tide of cheap, home-brewed methamphetamine, these days police say it's becoming more common to find black tar heroin on the streets.

Just like in Columbia County, officers in Washington County have been dealing with the low-cost, readily available narcotic.

"Heroin's pretty cheap right now, and they can get a three-day high for $20," said Forest Grove Police Officer Jennifer Smith. "I would say, other than marijuana, it's the second-most popular drug that I'm seizing off people. When it comes to hard drugs, heroin is definitely number one."

Rise in overdoses

It's not just police who are seeing an uptick in the use of the illicit opiate.

According to the Oregon State Medical Examiner, the drug was involved in 143 of the 240 deaths in Oregon last year that involved heroin, cocaine and meth. Methamphetamine was involved in 107 deaths, while cocaine was involved in 33 deaths.

There were two reported drug-related deaths in Columbia County in 2011, one from heroin and one from meth.

Overdoses from heroin have been on the rise in Oregon for years. Between 2010 and 2011, the medical examiner's office reports a 59 percent jump in heroin fatalities.

While police say heroin use appears to be up in Columbia County, based on drug-related arrests, meth remains king. In 2011, the Columbia County Sheriff's Office arrested 41 people for methamphetamine possession and seven for heroin. Two people were arrested for possessing cocaine.

Why now?

What's spurring some drug users' switch to heroin isn't entirely clear.

Users can be introduced to the drug through a friend network or by a boost in availability.

Sgt. Edwards said most of this region's drug supply flows from Portland.

'That's usually the stopping point for all the drugs,' he said.

Portland's drug activity impacts other communities as well.

"In the past, whenever Portland has seen a spike, we've seen a spike in overdoses," said Lt. Michael Rouches, spokesman for the Hillsboro Police. He said two of three overdoses reported to Hillsboro police in the past 15 months happened in the last two days of March.

Police also speak of the influence a single dealer can have in small areas like rural Columbia County. Once someone's selling the drug, users get hooked and start searching it out.

On top of that, users can quickly gobble up a flood of cheap drugs.

Some say a rise in the use of pharmaceuticals like OxyContin and Methadone - both opiates - might be introducing people to a high similar to that of heroin.

The Oregon Medical Examiner's office is also seeing more deaths related to pharmaceutical opiates. In 2011, 100 people died from Methadone overdoses, 56 died from OxyContin overdoses and 37 died from overdoses of hydrocodone, a drug commonly known by the brand name Vicodin.

All three drugs are used to medicate persistent and temporary pain stemming from injuries. But they also wind up on the street, being peddled by dealers for about $30 a dose. At street prices, a fix of heroin costs around $10.

Pharmaceutical opiates are prepared in doses, but black tar heroin - the most common on the street - is not.

Batches of heroin can range in potency and intravenous users who are used to a certain amount of one batch of the drug can accidentally overdose when they hit a more potent supply.

"When there happens to be a strong batch out there," Rouches said. "that's when we see problems."