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Health District copes with exploding heroin epidemic

 


It was the kind of police report about a June 24 incident in the 1100 block of Mill Creek Boulevard that might have been front page news in another era: A man was found unresponsive by a relative and was later declared deceased by medics. Heroin was found at the scene.

Such tragedies are becoming so common that people aren’t even surprised anymore. Nearly everyone knows a family member or friend who is struggling with addiction.

In fact, Snohomish County’s heroin and opiates crisis has exploded, so much so that a national newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, published a major investigative piece on July 10 about Snohomish County titled, “How black-market OxyContin spurred a town’s descent into crime, addiction and heartbreak.”

The story tells of an Everett man back in 2008 who moved from being a small-time crack dealer outside a convenience store to a major opiates and heroin supplier that infected all of Snohomish County.

Working with Los Angeles area drug gangs and crooked doctors and pharmacists, the local man, Jevon “Goldie” Lawson, oversaw an I-5 trafficking system that moved more than 1.1 million OxyContin pills from L.A. to the Everett area before authorities brought down the ring, the Times reported.

While Lawson is now doing an 8-year sentence in prison, the opiates epidemic rages on. After OxyContin pills became unaffordable on the black market, addicts moved to heroin, which is cheap and readily available.

On Tuesday, the board of the Snohomish Health District heard a report on the fight, learning the need outstrips health professionals’ ability to meet that need. Just as drug abusers from all walks of life are looking for help, treatment options are limited, and waiting lists are growing.

Mill Creek Police Chief Greg Elwin, new to the job in February, said there have been two heroin-related deaths in the city in just the past two months, and many burglaries, including shoplifting, fraud and other crimes, are linked to heroin users seeking cash to fund their addiction.

Elwin said his officers, as well as law enforcement officers nationwide, find themselves wearing many new hats, such as social workers, medical aid assistants, mentors and other roles.

“What I’ve discussed with my officers is that we need to peel back the next layer when we’re dealing with heroin,” Elwin said. “Just arresting people and throwing them into jail isn’t going to solve the problem.”

Partly because of the decline in health services and an increasing reliance on police, officers and other first responders are learning how to administer Narcon, a medication that can prevent overdose deaths.

Although Mill Creek police don’t yet have the training and kits to provide that service, Elwin said they’re searching for grant opportunities.

County Councilmember Brian Sullivan, who chairs the 15-member Health District board, said decreasing funding has led to a decline in staff from about 240 at the Health District’s height to half that today, thus the increasing reliance on police and other public servants to step up. Numerous programs have been cut back or eliminated, he said.

Part of the problem is that Snohomish County cities no longer help fund the Health District, Sullivan said. Tax cuts and a recession combined to strip away much of its funding.

The explosion in heroin use has led to increased crime, such as home invasions, with addicts desperate to find ways to pay for their habit.

In the Aug. 2 primary, Snohomish County voters will be asked to approve a sales tax increase of 0.2 percent to provide funds for more law enforcement officers, prosecutors, social workers and new programs. If approved, the average household would pay about $94 per year more, or 2 cents per $10 purchase.

The countywide tax hike would raise an estimated $25 million annually, with cities dividing 40 percent of the new money on a per-capita basis, and the county collecting the other 60 percent.

However, Health District officials are hoping local electeds will be willing to share some of the new funding. Sullivan said the Health District sent letters to all the cities asking for a share; none have responded. “We haven’t heard a word,” he said.

“We’ve known for years that the problem is growing rapidly, and we’re falling farther and farther behind,” Sullivan said.

He said Snohomish County’s situation is unusual, that cities in other parts of the state typically help fund health services, raising money on a per-capita basis.

Should the voters approve the measure but cities decline to give up some of their new money, Sullivan said the Health District may turn to the state Legislature to let it form a taxing district like water, sewer, fire and other independent districts.

Meanwhile, presenters at Tuesday’s workshop emphasized that America’s drug culture – especially our dependence on prescriptions – all but ensures the opiate problem won’t go away anytime soon.

Dr. Caleb Banta-Green with the University of Washington’s Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute said 25 percent of all adults at one time or another get prescriptions for controlled substances.

When a doctor writes a prescription for 60 OxyContin pills, but the patient only takes a handful of them before putting the rest in the medicine cabinet, it’s not surprising that the leftovers often find their way into a child’s pocket or onto the black market.

And opiates or heroin are so addictive that they take over, getting in the way of family, friends, school or work, and every other aspect of a person’s life.

Dr. Gary Goldbaum of the Health District said parents often don’t even realize the extreme danger prescription drugs present, to themselves or their children.

“When your neighbor says, ‘Thank God, I thought my kid was on pot, but it’s only pills,’ you need to be able to say, ‘Actually, you need to be worried about that.’”

Dr. Banta-Green said the crisis really hit home for him when a couple he was treating told him, “We love opiates more than we love each other.”

 

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