The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 16, 2016 1:19 am

Heroin becomes growing problem

Jeff Wiehe | The Journal Gazette

It’s cheap, easy to get and being used by young and old alike.

And it’s more potent, being sold in a highly purer form than in years past. One batch those on the street dubbed "Fire" left three people – all of whom bought it from the same dealer – dead from overdoses in a 12-hour span this year.

Allen County is not immune to what is being called a heroin epidemic sweeping the country, and local health officials are already trying to put into place plans to handle the ill-effects that can come with heroin use – namely the spread of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.

Monday evening, presentations made before the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health Board outlined the scope of the heroin problem locally as well as the beginnings of a possible needle-exchange program that could be enacted if an outbreak of HIV or hepatitis C becomes severe.

"In all my years in law enforcement, I’ve never seen such a powerful addiction as in heroin," said Sgt. Kevin Hunter, head of the Fort Wayne Police Department’s vice and narcotics unit, while speaking to the board.

In 2009, city police officers confiscated 43.23 grams of heroin while working cases. That number doubled the following year and has grown every year since, with officers taking 157.5 grams off the street in 2014 and helping the Drug Enforcement Administration take 8 kilos of the drug during a federal case.

The rise in heroin is attributed to a crackdown on prescription painkillers, which seemed to be the drug of choice for several years, and its relative cheapness compared to those very same painkillers, Hunter said. A tenth of a gram of heroin goes for $15 or $20 on the street while OxyContin, prior to reformulation, sold for $30 to $60 a pill.

One local dealer, according to Hunter, was previously a patient of Allen County’s own Dr. William Hedrick, who has been suspended from practicing medicine while felony charges claiming he overprescribed pain medication to his patients in Muncie wind through the court system.

Some heroin being sold at street level is mixed with the painkiller Fentanyl. Police have even found what is being sold as "heroin" is actually Fentanyl in crushed or powdered form, according to Hunter, who also said officers have found parents and their children using the drug together.

"Even dealers are warning users not to use this stuff alone," Hunter said.

In May, two men and a woman – ages 29, 31 and 34 – who bought heroin from the same dealer ended up dead from overdoses within a half a day.

According to Hunter, that instance is a perfect example of how addictive the drug can be: Two of those overdose victims bought their heroin together. After one learned the other had used that batch and died, that user still injected a dose.

While controversial in some circles, health officials are behind a needle-exchange program that can be used if the spread of disease commonly associated with intravenous drug use arises, though the state law outlining when it can be enacted is vague.

One needle-exchange program has already been used in tiny Scott County in the southern part of the state. Typically, that county saw about five HIV cases a year. Through June of this year, there were 170 – most of it attributed to intravenous drug use.

A needle-exchange program allows those who inject drugs to come in and exchange used needles – some that they might share with others and pass on diseases – for new ones that are clean. Taxpayers typically foot the bill in some of these programs.

"There are a lot of emotional and societal hurdles you have to overcome," said Dr. Deborah McMahan, the Allen County health commissioner, on creating such a program. Later, she added: "I don’t want to be Scott County."

Through the first six months of this year, there have been nine new HIV cases reported in Allen County compared with seven during the same time last year. One of those people infected with HIV had used intravenous drugs, officials said.

However, three others living in the county who became infected with the virus somewhere else have also used intravenous drugs in the past, officials said.

Meanwhile, there have been 116 new cases of hepatitis C reported through the first six months of this year, 20 percent more than the 97 seen through the same period of last year.

It’s unclear how many of those were intravenous drug users. In the past month, health department officials have begun formally asking those diagnosed with the disease whether they have used them in the past.

Two of the six answered yes.

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