To quote Lance from Pulp Fiction: “Heroin, it’s coming back in a big f—ing way.”
Pop culture allusions aside, the drug has become a serious concern in Baton Rouge after 34 heroin-related deaths were confirmed in the city in 2013 alone. While that doesn’t sound like many, it’s nearly seven times the number of deaths reported in 2012. Also, the amount of heroin seized by law enforcement in 2013 was over 3,800 grams, almost 33 times the amount seized the year before.
The cause for heroin’s resurgence is simple economics. Prescription pills, once an opiate addict’s first choice, have become prohibitively expensive on the street as authorities crack down on doctor shopping and fraudulent prescriptions. While moving up the ladder as the new number one choice for addicts, heroin has – so far – remained cheap.
According to East Baton Rouge coroner Dr. Beau Clark, heroin has almost completely replaced prescription drugs in terms of body count.
“It’s not exactly the same, but I would say that it’s similar,” he said. “They do kill in the same way, however. People would mix pills like hydrocodone, oxycodone and other opiates with alcohol. This would lead to respiratory depression: essentially they stop breathing and eventually die.”
A major part of the problem with the drug’s fatal effects lies within the quality of the drug, not the quantity. Addicts essentially play Russian roulette when purchasing their next fix.
“Obviously, heroin is not regulated by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] in the way prescription drugs are,” said Clark. “When you take a five milligram hydrocodone, you’re taking five milligrams of hydrocodone. When you buy heroin from a street dealer, it could be anywhere from five to 100 percent pure heroin.”
Baton Rouge is not the only city struggling with this drug. Across the country, cities are noticing increases in deaths attributed to heroin. And in a majority of the cases, the victims died because they got more than they bargained for. Heroin cut with fentanyl, a painkiller 100 times more powerful than morphine, has killed more people since September than all of the heroin-related deaths reported last year in Baton Rouge. According to numbers reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 22 people have died from using this cocktail within the last week. The same number was reported in Rhode Island last month and 37 deaths were reported in Maryland since September.
According to Clark, the heroin-fentanyl compound has not reared its ugly head in Baton Rouge yet, though there have been some deaths attributed to it in Metairie. Clark says that is not good news for the city-parish.
“That sounds like good news unless you know how drugs are made,” he said. “To make a profit, dealers will cut their product with other substances to stretch it out or make it more powerful. We’ve seen heroin cut with talcum powder, but also with other powerful drugs like PCP. Many times it’s what the drug is cut with that leads to death, rather than the drug itself.”
Dr. Howard Wetsman, chief medical officer at the Townsend Treatment Center in Baton Rouge, says that today’s problems with heroin and opiates are “a new turn in an old problem,” but the problem to which he is referring isn’t heroin or drugs at all.
“Getting heroin off the streets doesn’t cure addiction,” he said. “Instead of preaching ‘drugs are bad’ and cracking down on dealers, we need to be having a frank conversation about the real disease here. When you tell a kid that doing drugs is bad, some of them will stay away, but there will always be some intrigued by being told not to do it. Instead, they need to understand that there is nothing cool or good about being a slave to your own habits.”
Wetsman argues that simply removing the drug from the streets is only a temporary fix and that the medical world is now – more than ever – in a good position to treat addiction.
“The way people think we’re going to fix is this is like playing whack-a-mole,” he said. “You aren’t going to punish people out of addiction. That has never happened before and it never will. Just last year, the American Society of Addiction Medicine changed their definition of addiction to not include any mention of drugs. We are finally acknowledging that addiction is not caused by substance abuse, but is in fact a chronic and terminal brain disease.”