The number of people seeking treatment for heroin addiction has exploded in Allen County in the last five years, according to figures from the Drug and Alcohol Consortium of Allen County.
In 2009, of all the people seeking treatment for addictions, less than 1 percent, or about 15 people, were addicted to heroin. That number fell in 2010 to only half a percent of all people with addictions, or less than 10.
By 2012, the number of people with addictions who were addicted to heroin jumped to 12 percent, meaning hundreds of people in Allen County were heroin addicts.
In 2013 the number of addicts on heroin had dropped to 5.9 percent, but it still represents a huge increase from only a couple of years before.
While the decline in people coming forward with heroin addictions from 2012 to 2013 might seem like good news, addictions experts note that all reporting is voluntary, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that heroin addiction was undergoing a sudden decline.
During the same period, the amount of heroin seized by Fort Wayne police, something that was rare just a few years ago, tripled in the three years from 2009 and 2012.
Though the amount of heroin seized by police in 2012, the last year for which numbers were available, seems small – only about 4 ounces – it has become almost a weekly event for police to announce they’ve seized heroin in a drug raid. This month, six men were indicted for allegedly plotting to distribute more than 5 kilograms of heroin in the region and rob other drug dealers in the area, including in Fort Wayne.
Today, police say the heroin, which used to be uncommon here, is flowing in from Chicago and an area known as the Region in northwest Indiana; some is also coming in from Indianapolis.
Marion Greene is a public health research analyst at IUPUI in Indianapolis who compiled the addiction figures that the Drug and Alcohol Consortium uses. Greene said she can only speculate on why heroin is suddenly becoming more common, but she suggests it has its roots in the introduction of some prescription painkillers in the 1990s.
Those drugs were accepted and easily available by prescription, but people came to rely on them. Then in 2013 there was a significant crackdown on the prescription drugs and doctors who were freely prescribing them, Greene said.
By then heroin had become more available, and it provided a better high and was actually cheaper than prescription drugs, Greene said. Heroin can cost $50 to $100 a day, while illegally obtained prescription drugs can cost twice that much, she said. Dealers recognized the emerging trend and took advantage of it.
Meanwhile, heroin was also seeing a resurgence among moneyed celebrities, and it has taken its toll, contributing to the death just this year of Philip Seymour Hoffman and others.
What Greene and others are concerned about is that heroin is shifting to younger users. People addicted to heroin used to typically be 45 to 55. More people in the 18-25 age group are becoming addicted, Greene said, and there has been a frightening jump in heroin use among people younger than 18.
Greene said the experts she has talked to don’t seem particularly surprised by the jump in heroin use. She said one colleague compared combating substance abuse to a game of whack-a-mole. Crack down on one substance and a different one pops up.
Jerri Lerch, executive director of the Drug and Alcohol Consortium, says the willingness to turn to heroin, which used to be viewed as a drug for dead-end addicts, is the result of an aging-out of awareness that people had of the drug a couple of generations ago.
Actually measuring the amount of heroin to be found on the streets, though, is difficult because it is illegal and users don’t respond to surveys, which Lerch said are one of the few ways the consortium gathers intelligence about the prevalence of drugs.
Regarding exactly how much heroin is on the streets, Lerch cited a quote that says things that are easy to count aren’t worth counting and things that are worth counting can’t be counted.
Dan Mawhorr, a sergeant with the Indiana State Police in Fort Wayne, was an undercover officer for nine years, ending about seven years ago, and in that role he said he bought heroin only one time. Now, he says, heroin is going gangbusters.
Like Greene, Mawhorr attributes the rise of the drug to the crackdown on prescription painkillers. Since the crackdown started, the price of those pills on the street has risen to $1 to $1.50 per milligram, so a 30-milligram tablet will cost $30 to $45. Meanwhile, a tenth of a gram of heroin can be had for $15, and in some places for as little as $5.
Estimating just how much heroin is out there, though, is difficult, Mawhorr said. Though various law enforcement agencies keep track of their drug seizures, they don’t compile the numbers.
Heroin use, oddly, can in some ways be attributed to an increase in the use of other drugs. In Kosciusko County, where there appears to be heavy use of methamphetamine, which creates a high, users will sometimes take heroin, which has the opposite effect, to alleviate the meth, said Kip Shuter, the public information officer for the Warsaw Police Department.
Why people are willing to deal with a drug that is so potentially deadly, and which has gained more notoriety recently as more famous actors have died from overdoses, might be hard to understand.
To Lerch, it’s just the result of a society that has become accustomed to and accepting of mood-altering substances, and young people who don’t look at the end game.
They only look at the front end, not the back end, Lerch said.