“Heroin use and overdoses have continued to plague King County, just like the rest of the country – and the rising use by teenagers is particularly troubling. We must work together to find a way to reduce this killer drug.”
~ King County Sheriff John Urquhart
Heroin is back in Seattle, even though it never really went away.
In March 2016, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine joined together with a panel of experts in order to formulate an immediate action plan to confront the region’s growing problem with heroin and prescription opioids.
Is There Really a Heroin “Epidemic” in Seattle?
To understand how bad the heroin problem REALLY is in Seattle, take a look at some recent statistics:
- In 2014, there 156 heroin-related deaths in King County.
- This is the highest recorded total in at least 20 years.
- The number of opioid overdose deaths in King County in 2014 is triple 2009’s total.
- In 2010, heroin was the third-most-mentioned opioid listed on death certificates statewide, at about 15%, behind methadone and oxycodone.
- By 2014, that percentage had jumped to 50%, making heroin the most-mentioned opioid on state death certificates
- Among Washington adults under 25 who died of an opioid overdose in 2014, heroin was listed on their death certificate 80% of the time
- In Seattle, heroin treatment admissions have doubled since 2010, and is currently higher than any other drug since 1999.
- 2013-2014, King County saw a 32% year-over-year jump in heroin admissions.
- Among all Help Line emergency calls, heroin is the most-frequently-mentioned drug.
- Every day in Seattle and throughout King County, 3615 people receive methadone treatment for heroin and opioid addiction.
- Despite that, there are still at least 150 people a day who are on the waiting list for Methadone Maintenance Treatment.
“Right now we have thousands of people addicted to heroin in our county, most of whom desperately want help to quit or reduce their use. Treatment with medications like methadone or buprenorphine cuts the chances of dying in half. I’m excited to work with this task force to get urgently needed interventions out into our communities as quickly as possible.”
~ Dr. Caleb Banta-Green, Senior Research Scientist, University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute
Why Has Heroin Abuse in Seattle Increased so Dramatically?
The decriminalization of marijuana triggered a chain of events that have led to the resurgence of heroin in Seattle.
Because marijuana is legal for recreational use in Washington and Colorado, and because so many states have provisions for medical marijuana, the demand for illicit marijuana has bottomed out. Drug cartels in Mexico have largely switched from growing marijuana to focus on other drugs – heroin, methamphetamines, and synthetic opiates.
Now, there is a flood of cheap heroin coming across the border – heroin seizures along the Southwest border between the United States and Mexico are up 200% within the last five years. Much of what does get in is finding its way to Washington State.
And here, they’re finding an enthusiastic market.
When the abuse of prescription opioid painkillers was recently the largest drug problem in the Seattle and the rest of the country, healthcare officials and law enforcement agencies responded – prescribing practices were changed, patient databases were created, and drug-take back days were initiated.
The efforts were successful:
- Prescription opioid deaths have decreased steadily, and are at their lowest point in at least a decade.
- Since 2010, prescription opioid treatment admissions in Seattle have went down 27%.
However, while prescription opioid-related deaths are down, heroin deaths have spiked.
Prescription opioids are both harder to obtain and more expensive, leaving addicts scrambling for a solution.
Heroin solves both problems.
On the one hand, it is available and easy to find.
It’s also much cheaper – an 80 mg oxycodone tablet can cost an opioid addict $80-$100, but an equivalent dose of heroin only costs about $20. And cheap, low-grade black tar heroin from Mexico can be purchased for as little as $5.
80% of heroin addicts say that they started out by misusing prescription opioid painkillers, and over 90% say that they switched because it was “cheaper and easier to obtain.”
So What Can be Done for Someone Addicted to Heroin in Seattle, Washington?
“I applaud King County for recognizing the severity of the problem related to heroin and other opiates and for pulling together regional experts to help address it. Heroin abuse is impacting every community in the region, and we need to work together to try and develop a sustainable solution to this rapidly growing crisis.”
~ Renton Mayor Denis Law
Heroin is one of the most dangerous drugs in Seattle because:
- It’s Available
- It’s Powerful
- It’s Deadly
- It’s Highly Addictive
- It is frequently cut with much-stronger synthetic opiates such as fentanyl or even carfentanil.
When someone is misusing heroin, the disease is always going to progress, often fatally. The only way to minimize that risk is with professional addiction treatment that includes opioid replacement therapy, using such medications as methadone or buprenorphine to ease withdrawal.
For many, medication-assisted recovery from addiction is all about reducing potential harm—HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis C, crime, homelessness, unemployment, etc.—while the lessons of recovery are being learned.