Even here: Heroin use growing in Carmel

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Once thought of as an inner city drug, heroin use is growing in Carmel and the threat has caught the attention of local police and civic leaders

By Pete Smith

“We started seeing heroin jump into our area in 2008,” said Major Aaron Dietz of the Carmel Police Department and the Hamilton/Boone County Drug Task Force when describing a drug epidemic that is increasingly threatening the lives of people in this community.

At first those words might seem unbelievable.

Driving around Carmel, many residents would say they feel safe – in fact many would say that Carmel is the proverbial shining city on a hill. There are certainly no junkies stumbling around and no drug dealers hawking their poison in area cul-de-sacs.

But the lack of visual proof is what’s deceiving.

Dietz said Carmel’s heroin problem was preceded by the abuse of prescription opiates, noting that the No. 1 prescription drug in Indiana is hydrocodone and that Indiana ranks No. 1 in the country for doctors prescribing it and other opiates.

For the past several decades prescription pain killers have been changing.

“We keep making pain medication stronger and people build up a tolerance,” Dietz said.

As those former patients get addicted, increasing dosages and strength of medications become unaffordable at about $45 per pill. So many turn to heroin, which can often be purchased on the streets of Indianapolis for less than $10.

“You’re going to Indianapolis to get your heroin if you live in Carmel,” Dietz said.

And undercover DEA agents who monitor known drug-dealing areas in Indianapolis confirm that. One agent said that police make routine use of license plate scanners to compile databases of visitors to those neighborhoods, and that suburban drivers are well represented.

Heroin is a cheaper and more powerful high, but one many are unprepared for. Overdoses are common and many area police and doctors note that if all opiate overdoses are combined, in 2010 they began to outpace car accidents as the leading cause of death in this country.

Tracing the veins

Just as lawmakers were altering laws and regulations to try and make it more difficult for unsuspecting patients to become addicted to pain killers, police and federal DEA agents said that several outside factors combined to boost the current heroin problem.

Successful arrests of Mexican cartel leaders limited the influence of top-down criminal organizations dealing in drugs.

And the legalization or proposed legalization of marijuana in several other states has sent would-be drug dealers looking for new cash crops.

At a recent gathering of law enforcement officers who gathered at the behest of U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks and State Sen. Jim Merritt, a DEA agent explained that Mexican heroin grown from poppies has completely shut out other forms of the drug that had been traditionally grown in places like Colombia, Southeast Asia or Pakistan and Afghanistan.

He noted the change has made the price of heroin drop by about 50 percent in the past couple of years.

And Indianapolis Police Chief Rick Hite said that often times the heroin sold now has between 80 and 90 percent purity, whereas heroin found in the United States in the 1960s and 70s was often about seven to eight percent pure.

And he said the new dealers tend to be small family-based Mexican cartels that grow, process and distribute the drug with Chicago being the main point of distribution in the United States.

“Heroin is not new. It’s just new here,” Dietz said. “Until we change demand, we won’t eliminate the problem.”

The drug is not selective

Since February of this year, Dietz said the task force has identified 100 area people who are criminal drug abusers.

“The average age group on the list is about 25 years old,” he said.

He also said the drug isn’t selective and that heroin abusers can be male or female, lower, middle or upper class, college educated or not. And in fact many used to have jobs.

“It can happen to anybody,” Dietz said.

Hamilton County Sheriff Mark Bowen runs the local jail, and he said that he has noticed the heroin trend, too. His population of female inmates – usually very low – has swollen recently and begun to stretch jail resources.

Because the recent addiction problems have started with pain killers and not teenage experimentation, Carmel schools haven’t seen much of a problem. Although Dietz noted there is an increasing problem in Indianapolis’ middle schools.

But police and local civic leaders have already started thinking of ways to educate people about the dangers of opiates and prescription pills. The question is just what age group to target first?

State Sen. Merritt mentioned that it needed to start young, as many children have been known to trade or share Ritalin pills prescribed to control the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – and may don’t realize it’s a crime to do so.

Hamilton County Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Andre Miksha said the problem is more insidious.

He noted that an entire generation of kids has grown up in a world where every problem is solved by a pill and that adults encourage their usage.

“Oh, pills are fine,” Miksha said is the message that people have to sent to kids.

Dietz agreed saying, “We can’t discuss it enough. (Using heroin or prescription opiates) is simply playing Russian roulette.”

Police response to the problem

Dietz said that Carmel has seen an increase in property crimes in the past six years – something he said is not a coincidence.

“What we’re trying to do now is to start an effort to eliminate property crimes by targeting suspects that are known drug users,” he said.

The reason being that heroin addicts first deplete their resources to feed their addiction. Then they deplete their family’s resources. Then they turn to stealing the first thing they see to get their next high.

“A person addicted to opiates will commit a crime anytime, anywhere, anyday,” Dietz said. “We all pay for it in terms of increased prices for retail.”

And the crime can be prolific.

Dietz said that recently seven drug users were arrested in Hamilton County for theft. When pressed, they said that they each had committed more than 100 crimes apiece in the previous 30 days, Dietz said.

And while the crime shows up, records on actual heroin arrests are often hard to see, perhaps limiting knowledge of the scope of the problem until recently.

In fact the city of Carmel recently denied a public records request from Current in Carmel that sought police incident reports and annual totals for people charged with possession of heroin.

“The city does not categorize its CPD incident reports by the drug type involved,” City Attorney Douglas Haney wrote in his response to the request.

Dietz said opiates can fall into multiple classes of illicit substances, making it impossible to track in current databases.

But police in central Indiana said the anecdotal evidence and reports for emergency medical technicians is too overwhelming to deny.

Dietz said he would like to see federal police funding restored to levels in the 1980s that were used to tackle the crack-cocaine epidemic.

“We’re really working on a slim budget,” he said noting that the area task forces don’t have the money to buy the drug necessary to bring cases against the dealers.

And he also noted that drug offense sentencing laws needed to be toughened – saying that police feel stifled by the revolving door of justice.

“We’ve lost our deterrent,” he said.

Dietz said that drug users need rehabilitation programs, but he doesn’t see that as a viable solution.

“It’s not because our programs aren’t good, it’s because our clients don’t stay in them,” he said.

As unpopular as the sentencing guidelines remain, he said that the mandatory sentences from the crack cocaine epidemic did work.

“Incarceration does affect in a positive way our crime,” Dietz concluded.

A different take on addiction

From his office in the Drug and Opiate Recovery Network headquarters housed in a building at the intersection of Main Street and Range Line Road in Carmel, Dr. Larry Ley has seen how heroin has ravaged Carmel for the past eight years.

“It was really rare to see someone from Carmel, Indiana, addicted to heroin a decade ago,” he said. “But now, truly, we are in the midst of a horrendous epidemic.”

So much so, that opiate addiction is all his practice has focused on for the past eight years.

And he’s adamant that increased policing won’t solve the problem.

“The answer isn’t arresting and sending them to jail. It’s treatment,” Ley said. “I’ve put more dealers out of business than any cop has.”

Ley eschews the traditional methodone clinic approach, which just replaces one addition with another.

Instead he uses a treatment regimen centered around a drug commercially called suboxone. Chemically it’s buprenorphine, a drug that can return clarity to heroin addicts and shorten withdrawal symptoms to 48 hours instead of more than a month – a factor in most heroin addicts’ difficulty with recovery.

In addition, Ley said that suboxone can be phased out over time to eliminate the chemical dependencies.

Ley admits that about 40 percent of clients dropout of the program, a fact that he attributes to the complex nature of addiction.

Besides a chemical addiction, heroin addicts are also influenced by a genetic predisposition to addiction and by a set of environmental factors. Unless the people are willing to confront all three, no treatment can put an addict into a state of remission, Ley said.

Continued call for awareness

Ley said he agrees that the average age of an addict is about 25, but that anyone could fall victim.

He also said that statistics are hard to come by.

“But EMS people will tell you that the frequency of emergency runs related to heroin overdose has increased exponentially,” Ley said.

The average patient he sees is spending $125 per day on drugs, and a lot of them smoke or inhale the heroin. But about half still inject for a better high.

“You can go through accumulated assets at that rate pretty quick,” he said.

But he said that with proper treatment, families and lives can be restored.

A phrase he said he often hears is, “What a miracle,” or “We had Christmas for the first time in four years.”

But even more than just treating patients, he said he sees a need for public education.

“The public doesn’t buy into the disease model (of addiction). The public buys into the idea of a behavioral problem,” he said.

Ley believes that 85 percent of doctors and 99 percent of nurses know nothing about addiction.

“If the public doesn’t want to be informed, how do you do that?” he lamented.

Warning signs of potential addiction

Major Aaron Dietz of the Hamilton/Boone County Drug Task Force said that the No. 1 warning sign of opiate abuse is a rapid change in behavior. A combination of others might include:

● Withdrawal from sports

● Work ethic suffers

● Grades suffer

● Sleep patterns become long and random, or sleeping 16 hours at a time

● Starting to wear long sleeves when it’s warm outside

● Rapid weight loss combined with looking sick, nauseous or lethargic

● Insomnia

● Not being able to complete simple tasks

● Finding burnt tin foil wrapped up in trash cans

● Finding needles laying around

● Finding lighters when people don’t smoke

● Finding burnt spoons

● Find rubber bands that could be used as a tourniquet

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