Photo: Todd Huffman
Heroin use in Utah appears to be on the rise, a disturbing fact that everyone from politicians to police officers are trying to reconcile in their own ways. With resulting deaths also increasing, Governor Gary Herbert recently gave his approval to two laws that attempt to address the problem. The question is, will they help?
The Numbers don’t Lie
Recent statistics have brought the issue of heroin use to the forefront. According to the Utah Department of Human Services, figures for drug treatment admission show that the use of heroin is seven times that of twenty years ago. The drug that accounted for two percent of all drug admissions in 1993 totaled approximately fifteen percent of admissions in 2013.
[Note: These figures only represent substance abuse admission paid for with public funds. They do not include patients who paid for treatment either personally or through private insurance.]
Unfortunately, the only number that has dropped is the average age of addicts. Users between the ages of 18-23 now make up approximately 1 in 5 admissions for treatment.
Heroin Use: Not Just for “Druggies” Anymore
According to many law enforcement officers, heroin use has spread from dark alleyways and dirty bathrooms to almost every facet of Utah life, and it’s not as easy to spot an addict as many believe. Treatment and arrest statistics show that they might be men or women, fathers or mothers, business men or athletes. Even missionaries have been caught in the clutches of the drug.
This fact was especially pronounced in a recent large-scale bust at the beginning of May. Eleven alleged drug dealers were arrested, and large amounts of heroin, cash and vehicles were seized. In addition, forty more arrests were made of customers who didn’t know about the bust and were trying to contact the dealers.
Eighty percent of the arrested customers were from Utah County. Salt Lake City Police officers report that many arrests made in the city are from Utah County addicts who either can’t or don’t want to buy heroin in their own “backyard,” so they are willing to drive the 100 mile round trip to get it.
However, many of them are staying right at home. In fact, the Utah County Major Crimes task force has already surpassed their goal for the year to seize 10 pounds of heroin by 1,200 percent. Currently they are at 136 pounds.
If Happy Valley isn’t immune, the rest of the state could be in trouble.
A Sign of a Bigger Problem
Many professionals agree that one reason people end up struggling with heroin is because they start with something much more commonplace. Very often prescription pills–usually pain killers–lead to heroin use when the patient finds him/herself addicted and unable to either afford or obtain medications such as OxyContin or morphine.
It can be a domino affect. An injury can not only lead to the use of prescription pain killers, but it can also cause external factors which lead to stress in the user. Sometimes income is lost as a result of a long-term injury. Personal relationships can also be strained. All of these factors multiply, and the user has another reason to use heroin instead of dealing with their problems.
Gordon Bruin from the Utah County Department of Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Treatment has 25 years of experience counseling addicts. He explained that heroin affects the part of the brain that is wired to avoid pain and suffering, something that most of the addicts he has treated seem to possess. Bruin–among others–believes that users need to get to the root of why they are hooked on the drug in the first place before it’s too late.
Governor Herbert Takes Action
In addition to growing usage, the most recently available data shows heroin-related deaths hit a 12-year high in 2012. In a report from the Utah Department of Health, 446 Utahns died from heroin use from 2008-2012.
These deaths are the part of the problem Governor Gary Herbert recently attempted to address when he approved two bits of legislation.
Herbert and the state of Utah have joined eighteen other states and the District of Columbia in enacting a form of 911 drug immunity law. These types of laws generally will provide immunity from low level offenses such as drug possession or use when a person calls 911 or seeks assistance for a drug overdose either for themselves or others.
The other law excludes people from liability if they are acting in good faith and give Naloxone to a person experiencing a opiate-related overdose.
As the latter law is so specific, most experts are looking to the 911 immunity legislation to help the problem. The key will be education. Washington was one of the first states to pass such legislation in 2008 and results of a University of Washington study are still being evaluated. However, one clear figure was that only about one-third of opiate users surveyed reported that they knew about the immunity (almost ninety percent said they would be more likely to call 911 as a result). Law enforcement officials need to be aware as well. The study has reported that to-date, no negative consequences have been reported. Only time will tell if Utah will see positive results from this new legislation.
Seeking Help for Heroin Use
If you are struggling with heroin addiction, there are several numbers you can contact.
Salt Lake County: 801-468-2009
Utah County: 801-851-7128
Davis County: 801-773-7060
If you are in legal trouble as a result of your heroin use, make sure you contact an experienced and professional criminal defense attorney.