Heroin epidemic not skin deep

Southwest Colorado is not immune to national addictions

Keywords: Prescription drugs,
There are three major types of heroin: black-tar heroin, left; white heroin, right; and brown heroin. Enlargephoto

David Holub/Durango Herald photo illustration

There are three major types of heroin: black-tar heroin, left; white heroin, right; and brown heroin.

Almost a year ago, 21-year-old Shane Gibson died in Durango, where he had grown up. In January, the son of U.S. Sen. Mark Udall was arrested on charges of heroin possession. On Feb. 2, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was discovered dead in his New York apartment.

These aren’t isolated incidents: Heroin is making a comeback. Southwest Colorado is no exception.

“Heroin exists like it never has before. We have definitely seen an increase,” said Pat Downs, director of the Southwest Drug Task Force. “Even three years ago, we never used to see this.”

The heroin – largely brown and black tar – is coming here from Mexico, said Tim Gorman, director of Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, which coordinates federal, state and local drug-enforcement efforts.

But law enforcement and health-care experts say demand for heroin is surging because an explosion in prescription painkillers such as Percocet, Vicodin, OxyContin and oxycodone has primed Coloradans for opiate dependency. Downs said new regulations have made it more difficult to obtain the prescription pills, so people have turned to heroin for their opiate need.

According to death certificates filed with the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, heroin caused 22 deaths in 2004 compared with 91 in 2012.

The mortalities dovetail with prescription opioid use, which has shot up nationally in recent years.

Prescription painkillers cast a large shadow over La Plata County, said Dr. Jack McManus, medical director of Mercy Regional Medical Center’s emergency department.

“If you had to rank the drug problems in our community, alcohol is number one, and prescription painkillers are number two,” he said.

Daniel Thomas, an addiction counselor at Detox of La Plata County, said he sees a spectrum of people go to detox trying to withdraw from heroin.

“I have seen 18-year-olds, I’ve seen 50-year-olds, from all walks of life, poor people and wealthy people,” he said.

They started coming in regularly in the last 12 months, he added.

Shane’s story

In junior high school, Shane Gibson played basketball and football. He was well-liked, his mother, Debra, said, and had no trouble making friends, though like many young people, he struggled with adolescent insecurities and self-doubt.

The summer after eighth grade, he experimented with marijuana and then with prescription painkillers.

“Addiction usually starts very innocently: Friends’ parents have OxyContin in their medicine cabinet, and it seems safe because it’s a prescription from a doctor. ‘My dad takes this,’ and they’re curious. Kids think they are invincible,” Debra Gibson said. “It’s only down the tunnel that you can see the cause and effect.”

Shane’s prescription painkiller addiction became full-blown while he was a young teenager, when such pills still were cheap and plentiful.

“We really didn’t know he had a drug problem,” his mother said.

Then the price for prescription painkillers increased, and prescriptions were harder to obtain.

Shane turned to heroin.

Debra Gibson recalls, with rueful hindsight, how she unknowingly watched her son withdraw on the family’s couch, how she took him to the emergency room for baffling ailments such as being out of breath. She remembers how, when Shane’s heroin problem started dominating their lives, she tried sending him to in-patient rehabilitation facilities, kicking him out of the house – the relief she felt when he spent five days in jail.

“I felt a kind of peace because I knew he was safe there,” she said. “It was just this horrible life that he had, like this demon that was always there. We had such a hard time understanding what was wrong with Shane – how he went from healthy kid to always having the flu.”

The horror of Debra Gibson’s tale is familiar to parents of addicts, who, like desperate chemists, struggle to find the elusive combination of support, boundaries and tough love that saves their child’s life. But the brain’s physical need for the substance it is addicted to often proves more powerful than love – even a mother’s love for her son, or a son’s strong desire to live.

“People don’t want to think that about Durango. We all have our blinders on. We think it won’t happen to our kids,” she said.

Increasingly, the victims of heroin look like Shane: In the first decade of this century, heroin deaths of teenagers and young adults tripled.

In America, the unprecedented increase in overdose deaths parallels a 300 percent increase in the sale of prescription painkillers since 1999.

Gorman, with Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, said increasing rates of heroin use are a grim function of supply and demand, and an unforeseen consequence of tightening the rules of prescription opioids.

He said prescription painkillers are expensive relative to heroin, spurring opiate addicts to graduate to the illicit drug.

“Why spend $80 on a prescription when you can get high for $30?” he said.

Drug court

At drug court in the La Plata County Courthouse on Monday evening, men and women in prison garb shuffled toward their seats in shackles before a gallery packed with onlookers. There, the face of drug addiction was young, human and creased with effort. Judge Martha Minot, who presided, ran the proceedings with an eagle eye for detail and unrelenting good cheer, asking whether one young woman was making enough time for herself, telling another young man he’d soon get into a treatment program.

Minot said drug court could be depressing, watching people struggle against a life-shattering disease only to lose their footing and stumble back into the narcotic wreckage.

She said in her experience, recovering heroin addicts face an experience that is neurologically excruciating.

“All your dopamine is totally suppressed,” she said. “There’s no normal pleasure, no pleasure after sex, or ‘I just went for a run’ pleasure. It’s heartbreaking.”

Minot said the trajectory of opiate addiction – start with a back problem, end up a junkie – could be jarringly steep. The road to help, meanwhile, is made longer because whereas alcohol is broadly socially acceptable, most heroin addicts are deeply ashamed of the drug they’re dependent on.

“There’s a positive side to it. There are people who are doing so much better,” Minot said. “But there’s an endemic problem in our society about the way we manage pain and then the way we exclude them when they have a problem.”

Debra Gibson, who is weeks away from the anniversary of her son’s death, put it another way.

“People just don’t want to know,” she said.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com