I-Team: Surge in heroin use prompts search for answers, solutions


by Bryan Baker


Posted on February 21, 2013 at 7:19 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 7 at 1:41 PM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- In heroin's heyday during the 1980s and 1990s, law enforcement officers say, addicts were older users of a drug that often migrated from Asia and was "stepped on" or diluted every time it changed distribution hands before it was used. The drug has returned to Kentuckiana's streets like none other and is being used by teenagers often coming from Mexico at a purity twice what it once was, making it much more dangerous.

It's hard to surprise law enforcement and other stakeholders but the heroin boom has officials are scrambling to solve it. The impact is seen in jails where a record number of inmates are dying, all over Louisville where it affects families of all races and socioeconomic statuses and in the volume of addicts getting detoxification in local treatment centers.

"I have a 21-year old daughter, I have a 15-year old daughter, and I have a four-year-old granddaughter," an emotional Michelle Woods, an inmate at Louisville Metro Corrections said. "I'm surprised they haven't given up on me yet. I know they still love me, but i know they're tired of what I do, I'm tired of what I do."

Woods' tears come from time she's lost to drugs. Her addiction landed her in jail and nearly worse.

"I overdosed not long before coming in here, and I was with a friend who used and luckily she brought me out of it, but it threw me into seizures."

She's serving a 22-year sentence and is in a Metro Corrections drug addiction program called Enough is Enough, hooked on a drug roaring back to Kentuckiana's streets.

"Heroin is becoming our number one problem, it's even overtaking pills.," LMPD Narcotics Lieutenant J.T. Duncan said.

In 2008 police seized just 104 grams of heroin. At the end of 2012 seizures jumped to more than 7,000 grams. Heroin arrests rose 11 times in that time frame. University Hospital treated 79 people who had overdosed on the drug in 2011. In 2012 there were 282 heroin overdose patients.

"It's unfortunately, it's everywhere, all over metro Louisville," Duncan said.

In one particular seizure, seven pounds worth of heroin, street value $630,000, was intercepted by police after being mailed to a vacant home from California.

"We're seizing it on the road, and we see it coming in on the bus station, cars, planes, trains, automobiles," Duncan said.

Seven inmates died in the custody of Metro Corrections within a seven month period in 2012, although not all were addicted to drugs at the time. Savannah Sparks did have a serious addiction to heroin when she was arrested for shoplifting last April. Five days later she died in the hospital after a medical event at the jail. The cause of death was complications of substance abuse (opiate abuse) with withdrawal.
Sparks' grandmother, Karen May, tells me her granddaughter's drug use escalated after her brother's own death in drug rehabilitation.

"She swore to me that she would never mix anything or take too much. And she knew from her brother, because he struggled with it for years," May said, crying.

The heroin problem is an unintended consequence of Kentucky House Bill 1, which went into effect last July. It cracked down on illegal prescription painkillers that mimic heroin. So those pills became more expensive, and heroin took over because of simple math.

"A user that could be spending $2-$400 dollars on pills can get the same high for $100 dollars on heroin," Duncan said. "We see teenagers, 13, 14 years old that we've interviewed and talked to that are heroin users, heroin addicts."

Some young heroin addicts who decide to get help end up at Louisville drug treatment center The Healing Place.

"In the last several months, we've seen literally an explosion in heroin addicts coming here and seeking treatment," said President Karyn Hascal.

20 years ago the healing place didn't treat many heroin addicts, because it wasn't a popular drug. Now in the week WHAS11 visited, 13 addicts entering their detox program were all hooked on heroin, all of them between the ages of 18 and 25.

"Our average age is just dropping every day," adds Hascal.

Alan Thomas is a mentor to recovering addicts but not long ago was the one getting the help.

"But I loved heroin and pills and alcohol way more than I did people, my family, my friends."

In theory treatment like at The Healing Place, not much more expensive jail time, is needed to break that cycle. But the problem is space. The Healing Place has only 24 detox beds for men and 24 for women in a city of 750 thousand people.

Said Hascal: "The whole area can support more than the 48 detox beds that we have now, because we have people at times, sitting up in chairs waiting for a bed, because they're so ill, and they don't really belong in the hospital, and there it isn't any place else for them to go."

So addicts sometimes end up in Metro Corrections are treated using your money -- tax dollars at work. Metro Corrections estimates it detoxes 40 to 80 inmates each day at a daily cost of 200 dollars per inmate. Many of them are addicted to heroin or pills. The Healing Place survives mostly on private donations and can't afford to expand.

"Oh, we need some money," said Hascal. "Yeah, we don't just have a building full of beds and staff to just open the doors and say here we are."

City leaders are exploring solutions but to hear them tell it that appears as breaking a heroin addiction. Some believe the focus by lawmakers is too narrow.

"Until we figure out how to address the disease as it is, we are going to continue to chase rabbits, because it's not any one drug," Hascal added.

Until then addiction will continue to cost you money and bring thousands of families to a dark place, from which there is no recovery.

"I had a little family, now I don't have them," adds May. "It's very hard."

Sadly officials believe the drug is a revolving door and expect heroin to become less popular and something else to take hold. City leaders, including Mayor Greg Fischer's Office, Metro Corrections, and The Healing Place have met to solve the problem.

One theory is that the negative stigma associated with heroin doesn't exist with young users, who may hear the horror stories about methamphetamine and bath salts use, but not heroin, because they're weren't around when the drug was popular decades ago.