Law enforcement officials say heroin now can be found in just about every urban corner of the Midlands, bucking a decadeslong trend of declining use.
Heroin can be found in the corners where dealers once sold crack and cocaine. And it can be purchased from colleagues who are hoping to finance their own addiction by selling some on the side.
And, while it isn’t ravaging the Midlands as it has elsewhere – yet, anyway – heroin is on its way to becoming the drug of choice. In Richland County, heroin busts this year are on track to outpace arrests for the county’s longtime popular drugs, crack and cocaine.
It’s become an epidemic that is gripping many parts of the nation. In an attempt to raise awareness, law enforcement officials around the country have started publishing images and videos of people suffering from overdoses.
In a now-infamous picture, the East Liverpool Police Department in Ohio opted to publish a picture on the department’s Facebook account in September of a grandmother and her boyfriend suffering from an overdose in a car while a 4-year-old boy looks on from the back seat. The couple were arrested for child endangerment.
Just a few weeks later, a video went viral of a New Hampshire woman who fell to the floor in a store, unconscious from an overdose, as her toddler cried inconsolably, trying to wake her up.
Though those states might seem far away, Midlands law enforcement officials say overdose incidents have happened here as well, just not as frequently. And they say they’re doing their best to prevent it from happening more often.
Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said Midlands law enforcement task forces have been good about recognizing emerging threats and staying ahead of the game as much as they can. And, with heroin, that means, in part, that they’re going after the dealer instead of the user.
“You have to first recognize that this is an epidemic that has been crippling to many areas in the country,” Holbrook said.
It’s not that far away from us. I think we have to be hyper-vigilant.
Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook
“It’s not that far away from us. I think we have to be hyper-vigilant in recognizing that and in how we’re going to manage and combat that from becoming a problem in the Midlands.”
Cheaper than pain meds
Richland County sheriff’s Capt. Brian Godfrey will tell anyone that the shift from prescription narcotics on the streets to heroin happened almost overnight.
The demand for heroin happened so quickly that dealers have confessed to Godfrey and his agents that the number of buyers encouraged sellers to switch from handling crack and cocaine to heroin.
“We went from not seeing it to seeing it,” Godfrey said. “My first two times in narcotics, I don’t remember ever hearing about heroin overdoses. Now I hear about it quite often.”
Heroin has become so prevalent, law enforcement officials and first responders are taking additional precautions when handling the property of suspected users. Agents have found used needles in plastic food containers and in laundry detergent bottles, said David Colwell, a narcotics agent who works with Godfrey.
But those who are being affected by overdoses is what’s most stunning to officials.
“We deal with a lot of people that are in their younger 20s that are using heroin,” Colwell said.
In some instances, you’d be surprised.
David Colwell, a narcotics agent with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, on who’s using the drug
“From people who are professionals to people who you would probably think are on heroin,” he said. “In some instances, you’d be surprised.”
A law enforcement crackdown in recent years on pain management clinics has made prescription pills scarcer on the streets. The harder pills are to find, the more young adults, especially, have turned to heroin for the first time.
Heroin is cheaper than pain pills, which go for as much as $25 to $30 for just one. The price of a small bag of heroin varies. It can range between $10 and $20 for an amount that could provide anywhere between one and three hits, depending on the dose’s strength. Users smoke it, shoot it up or snort it.
The low price means it spreads quickly.
That’s why the Richland County Sheriff’s Department has been targeting heroin dealers instead of users when making arrests. Though they’ll arrest anyone caught with heroin on them, disrupting the flow of the potentially lethal drug to the streets by busting suppliers is most effective, Godfrey said.
“This is probably the better way to do it,” Godfrey said. “I think you get more drugs off the streets. You’re making a bigger impact to the solicitor’s office.”
Purer, potentially deadlier
Even though heroin overdoses aren’t killing a person a day in the Midlands as in other states, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts called the prevalence of the drug on the streets a “crisis.”
In 2015, nine Richland County overdose deaths could be attributed to heroin. Through July 2016, there were already 12 overdose deaths caused by heroin and fentanyl – a synthetic opioid that is often cut with heroin that is far more potent – and deadly – than heroin.
To better track and document the opioid abuse, Watts’ office has started listing the names of the drugs found in a person during an autopsy, instead of using the more generic “multi-drug toxicity.”
Contributing to the addiction problem is that decades ago, heroin was laced with other fillers, Watts said. Today’s heroin is more pure, but when it is cut, it’s cut with potentially deadlier toxins.
“When you’re dealing with drugs off the streets, you don’t know what’s in the drug,” Watts said. “You don’t know the quality or purity of the drug. You can buy the same physical amount every day, but that doesn’t guarantee that the strength of the drug is going to be the same.”
The proliferation of heroin has even encouraged some users to carry with them Naloxone, a medication first responders use to block the effects of an opioid-induced overdose. But carrying the overdose-reversing drug is of no use if there’s no one around to administer it, Watts said. And an overdose kills quickly.
We find people with the needle still in their arm.
Richland County Coroner Gary Watts
“We find people with the needle still in their arm,” he said. “... Once they inject themselves, they’re done.”
Watts also warned those who dismiss heroin and opioid usage as a rarity that it’s everywhere.
“We have a cross section of society” that suffers from drug overdoses, “from the typical drug addict off the streets to a millionaire,” Watts said.
“It’s not a problem that you’re going to see from a street corner late at night. This is happening in neighborhoods all around the county.”
On Thursday, the board of the state’s health agency also moved to ban “Pink,” a synthetic heroin substitute that is eight times stronger than morphine, according to staffers at the Department of Health and Environmental Control. Two South Carolina residents have died from the drug since 2015: a 28-year-old Spartanburg woman and a 16-year-old Lancaster boy.
Urban areas affected the most
Though Lexington County has seen its share of heroin-related deaths, marijuana and methamphetamine are still the top drugs there, said Maj. J.J. Jones, head of operations at the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department.
Heroin seems to be a drug that affects more urban areas, Jones said. There is some spillover into Lexington County around the St. Andrews area and the Interstate 26 corridor. But the drug is just not as popular as it is in other areas, Jones said.
Lexington County narcotics agents are on pace to average one heroin-related arrest a month, a number that doesn’t include arrests made by road deputies. Nonetheless, for the first time in his 20-year-career, Jones said he has spoken to the parents of two children who died of a heroin overdose in the past year alone.
Jones warned that heroin is a very difficult drug to break away from. Rarely, he said, do you hear of people who were on heroin for 10 years, cleaned up and became a success.
“There’s no coming back from it,” Jones said. “It’s a dead-end road. The more we can steer away from it, the better.”
Holbrook said education and treatment, and a vigorous law enforcement investigative strategy that focuses on the dealers and their sources, can be a way to keep heroin at bay in the Midlands.
You will never arrest your way out of a heroin epidemic.
Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook
“Generally speaking, it’s very difficult to combat because you’re dealing with drug addicts that are sick from the drugs and continue to seek more and more,” Holbrook said. “You will never arrest your way out of a heroin epidemic.”
Education and Treatment
An important step to improving the community’s response to heroin, says Jeremy Martin, is treating addiction like a disease instead of a moral problem.
Martin is vice president for treatment and intervention services at the Lexington/Richland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council, commonly known as LRADAC.
Yet, even when people embrace addiction as a disease, it’s not always addressed that way from a treatment standpoint, he said. He called addiction the “red-headed stepchild of diseases.”
“I think that more and more people are starting to understand it as a disease, because more and more lives are being touched by it,” Martin said. “So, when you have an individual who has lost a loved one, they look at it a lot differently.”
About 10 to 13 percent of LRADAC’s clients are suffering from an opioid addiction, Martin said. That percentage has been slowly but gradually ticking up each month, he said.
Like law enforcement, LRADAC has found that clients affected by heroin and opioid-related abuse are nowadays more middle class and younger, Martin said. The shift has created a “call to arms” so to speak, because the parents of those affected have more resources. But he stressed that heroin has been here; it’s just gaining more notoriety in the news.
Martin said it doesn’t help that society tends to sensationalize addiction because of celebrities who are reported to be going in and out of treatment. But spreading the word that recovery is a possibility is the best way to get a person addicted to heroin to consider treatment.
If the message that we sell is dark and dreary, ... then the people who have those problems aren’t motivated.
Jeremy Martin, vice president for treatment and intervention services at LRADAC
“If the message that we sell is dark and dreary, and (we’re) not selling hope and success, then the people who have those problems aren’t motivated,” Martin said.
“Recovery isn’t a magic wand that is waved and you’re healed. It’s a journey, and it’s a process. And sometimes that process takes a different path for a different person.”
▪ Heroin arrests soon should outpace arrests for cocaine and crack in Richland County.
▪ The same dealers are involved. They’ve just switched drugs because of customer demand.
▪ Police say they are cracking down on dealers instead of users, keeping heroin from being such a scourge here.
▪ Marijuana, then meth, remain the drugs of choice in Lexington. But heroin is gaining ground.
▪ 10-13 percent of Midlands addiction cases now involve opioid abuse, whether pills or heroin, a key treatment agency says.
▪ There is no simple profile of a heroin user, in part because so many start out as prescription pill abusers. Heroin use defies gender, race, wealth and age, though increasingly many users are younger.
▪ Prescription pills, often a gateway to heroin use, still cause an unsettling number of deaths, Richland coroner Gary Watts says.
WHAT IS HEROIN?
▪ Heroin is a derivative of morphine, which is a natural product of the opium poppy.
▪ It takes effect quickly, especially when injected, and lasts for hours.
▪ It is sought after because it not only kills pain but causes euphoria.
▪ But because it also depresses the respiratory system, it can kill easily.
▪ Estimates are that about a quarter of those who try the drug become chemically dependent.
SOURCE: National Institute on Drug Abuse