Heroin deaths in SE La. more widespread than thought

In recent unofficial conversations with each other, law enforcement officials discovered that the dramatic increases in heroin-related deaths in their individual localities actually was a new and harrowing trend happening across southeast Louisiana.

Talking across jurisdictional lines, sheriffs, police chiefs and coroners found that the use of the highly addictivie drug, usually associated with gritty urban crimes, had become widespread in Louisiana’s smaller cities, suburbs and rural areas.

“Heroin is slowly becoming, and I believe has become, at the level of an epidemic,” said Assumption Parish Sheriff Mike Waguespack. “You are playing Russian roulette with heroin. We are going to see more cases of overdoses.”

On the local level, sheriffs, police chiefs and coroners, individually, are reporting:

A heroin death a week since the start of 2013 in Jefferson Parish.

Heroin-related deaths have tripled in East Baton Rouge Parish since last year, and this year still has three more months.

Slidell has recorded eight deaths from heroin overdoses, part of St. Tammany Parish’s 15 deaths so far this year.

Louisiana State Police Col. Mike Edmonson said the drug is coming out of Mexico, and it’s brown heroin. “Heroin is here. It is available,” he said,

The State Police crime lab is showing a more than a three-fold increase in the number of exhibits involving heroin for criminal prosecutions and investigations. The lab tested 78 exhibits in 2011 and so far this year has tested 237. “That’s an indicator of the epidemic we are seeing,” Edmonson said.

The increasing number of deaths indicates that more people are using heroin, behavioral health experts say. But other factors play a role as well, including recent changes to state laws.

One law created a better tracking system for prescription drugs, which is reducing the street supply. Another dramatically reduced the prison time for heroin distribution. A 2001 law reduced a mandatory life with no benefit of parole or suspension of sentence to a minimum mandatory five years and maximum 50 years.

East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Dr. Beau Clark said the state’s elimination of a life prison sentence for distributors plays a role. “If drug dealers didn’t want to do business in Louisiana, to face life in prison; but they find out it’s five years, maybe it’s a risk I’m willing to take,” he said.

Additionally, efforts to cut into the growing trade of the sale of prescription drugs on the street have buyers turning to heroin.

“People addicted to opiates start looking for other drugs,” Clark said. “The problem is prescription drugs are controlled by the FDA. The heroin is not. It’s a little baggie of who knows what.”

Clark said the parish has not seen a lot of heroin in the past. But he’s seeing the signs of big inroads as he determines cause of death from overdoses. Toxicology reports have confirmed 14 heroin-related deaths in East Baton Rouge Parish so far this year, and another four are pending verification, Clark said. Last year, there were five.

“It crosses all realms of society. Young people, older people. People with wealth. People who are not wealthy. It’s sad,” said Clark. “We are seeing needles still right there” at death scenes. Heroin, a drug derived from morphine, is typically injected into a vein or muscle.

Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith said the heroin-related deaths in his city are predominantly young, white male adults.

“These are kids from decent families. They are not like junkies, like we think of the old heroin users back in the ‘70s,” Smith said. “We are losing young adults who are trying this stuff.”

Many of those dying have been in rehab, trying to get clean and have been off heroin for a certain amount of time, Smith said. “Then they get the itch for another dose and go back to the same dose they had before they got cleaned up, and now that amount is too much for their body to handle,” he said.

A law change provided tracking of prescription drug purchases so that people could no longer get multiple prescriptions filled by “doctor shopping.” The new monitoring is reducing the number of prescription drugs on the streets. Heroin is cheaper.

Dr. David Greeson, who treats heroin addicts, said people are turning to heroin as opiate-based prescription drugs are getting harder to come by and more costly, “They will switch to heroin to save money. The addicts I work with laugh about it,” Greeson said.

Dr. Rochelle Dunham, state medical director over behavioral health, said education about opiates is critical.

“That’s what’s really killing people more than anything, education that you cannot step away from one kind of opiate and move to another,” Dunham said. “They are not able to make that conversion.”

In the 1970s, said Mark Bone, Jefferson Parish coronor’s office investigator, heroin was 10 percent pure, but now it could be as much as 70 percent “and people don’t know what they are getting into.”

Two-thirds of the way through 2013, Jefferson Parish had seen 44 heroin-related deaths. Thirty-five of the 44 deaths involved people between age 18 and 45.

“We have been seeing a steady increase. It’s readily available on the streets,” said Mark Bone, Jefferson Parish coronor’s office investigator.

Jefferson led the state in 2012 with 22 deaths, according to preliminary state Vital Statistics data, followed by St. Tammany with 11 and Orleans with six. Other parishes did not register more than five each, the number at which a state health agency is triggered to release the specific numbers publicly.

The Orleans coronor’s office could not supply current year data on heroin-related deaths.

Back in 2007, the state Office of Vital Statistics recorded seven heroin-related deaths statewide. In 2011, there were 16 statewide. In 2012, the number had jumped to 53, based on preliminary data, state health officials reported. No statistics are available, yet, for 2013.

Coroners and law enforcement in north and southwest Louisiana report that the surge in heroin activity and deaths has not yet reached them.

Caddo Parish Coroner Todd Thomas said he had not seen a case this year. “There’s a lot of mileage difference,” said Thomas, noting the concentration of activity in south Louisiana.

Lafayette Parish has recorded one heroin death this year.

“New Orleans historically has had heroin where nobody else had it,” said Calcasieu Parish Lt. Gene Pittman who has been in narcotics enforcement for 15 years. Now it’s spreading to other areas and those who have been exempt, like his parish, cannot breathe easy, he said.

“Be ready. It’s coming,” Pittman said.