Spike in deaths from heroin draws attention to increase in use among young

Mar 14, 2012

"Nationally, Seattle is fairly high in heroin use."

Last week Washington state saw a spike in heroin-probable deaths. Seven people in King County overdosed on the drug with in just four days.

The spike stands out against a general decline in deaths due more to a decrease in the purity of the drug than a drop in usage, said one researcher. In fact, use among the young has risen by 74 percent.

According to the Seattle PI, the county medical examiner’s office says the recent deaths occurred across King County, among people of varying ages and users who were both experienced and inexperienced.

There are no sure indicators pointing to a reason for the spike in heroin overdoses last week, but King County health officials speculate that it may be contributed to increased potency or a mixture with other substances.

Seattle and opiates

Heroin use has had a long history in the Seattle area.  According to a publication by the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute (ADAI) 50 heroin-probable deaths were totaled in 2010 a drastic decrease from 1998 in which 144 deaths were totaled.

“Nationally, Seattle is fairly high in heroin use,” said Caleb Banta-Green, a research scientist for the ADAI. “Even higher in use are prescription-type opiates.”

Banta-Green said the decrease in heroin-probable deaths isn’t because of a decrease in users, but rather a decrease in the purity of the drug.

“Heroin users in the past were mainly middle-age males in the Seattle area,” said Banta-Green. “What’s compelling is the fact that the risk is now more spread out across the county and age demographics.”

The major demographic change, according to his study, in the last decade is with young users. Admissions for heroin among those 18 to 29 years old has increased by 74 percent.

The move to heroin

Banta-Green speculates that people who initially abuse prescription-type opiates transfer from pills to heroin for economic reasons.

“People move through pharmaceuticals quickly, economically is makes sense for drug users to switch from Oxycodone to heroin.”

As KPLU's Keith Seinfeld reported in June, nearly 40 percent of heroin addicts interviewed at a treatment clinic in King County say they started with prescription drugs first.

Other data, from the state crime lab, show drug busts for heroin are on the rise in a number of smaller counties (particularly on the Olympic peninsula and in Whatcom County). Heroin abuse used to be confined to Washington's cities -- primarily Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, Everett and Yakima. Now, it's appearing in small towns and rural areas.

The reason someone might be more likely to move from painkillers to opiates, and not another drug such as cocaine, is because they're in the same family. Opiates come from the opium poppy – and include morphine, heroin, methadone and other prescriptions such as Vicodin and Oxycontin.