Jump in local heroin cases mirrors national trend

  • Sonoma County Superior Court judge Rene Auguste Chouteau, background, oversees Sonoma County drug court at the Sonoma County Courthouse in Santa Rosa, Thursday Nov. 29, 2012. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012

An increase in local heroin cases appears to mirror a trend across the nation, where health officials have noticed a startling jump in fatal overdoses.

"Our data shows heroin use is resurging," said Dr. Wesley Clark, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Maryland.

Heroin use has ebbed and flowed in America over the last century. The latest surge was first spotted in 2007, said Clark. But it has been further fueled by changes in 2010 to the formula for a potent painkiller called OxyContin.

The drug, a time-released version of oxycodone, is similar to morphine and was prescribed by doctors for severe pain relief. OxyContin abuse led to a nationwide addiction epidemic by the late 2000s, starting earlier in the decade on the East Coast and sweeping westward.

In 2010, Santa Rosa police reported a wave of crimes involving OxyContin by local addicts, including armed pharmacy robberies.

In August 2010 Purdue Pharma changed the formula, reducing the potency and making the pills harder to tamper with. For the most part, the change diminished the abuse of OxyContin, but it also shifted the problem elsewhere. Full-strength OxyContin began disappearing from the street, and addicts began seeking their highs from other drugs.

Heroin as the favorite new option caught the attention of the national media in July, when researchers published a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The researchers explained surveys of drug abusers seeking treatment revealed high numbers had switched from OxyContin to heroin and other somewhat less potent opioids, or synthetic versions of opium, such as high-potency fentanyl and hydromorphone. They switched, researchers said, because the OxyContin formula had changed and heroin was cheaper and easy to get.

The increase has led to a jump in heroin-related deaths.

Fatal heroin overdoses nearly doubled in the United States during a recent 10-year period, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. In 1999 there were 1,725 heroin deaths reported. Ten years later there were 3,278.

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