While Humboldt County is normally seen as a mecca for marijuana, local officials say another drug has found a stronghold on the North Coast -- heroin.
”Heroin has really blown up,” Eureka Police Sgt. Michael Guy of the Problem Oriented Policing unit said. “It's everywhere and in every walk of life.”
Most recently, 4 pounds of heroin were seized by the county Drug Task Force in what Sheriff's Office Lt. Steve Knight called the largest heroin seizure in Humboldt County history.
”The ripple effect of taking this quantity of heroin is big,” Knight said. “Unfortunately, someone will fill the void down the road.”
The $200,000 worth of heroin was found after a sheriff's deputy noticed the suspicious behavior of a driver and his passenger during a late night traffic stop in Eureka on April 11. After questioning the driver -- 20-year-old Mario Martinez Torres of Perris -- and his 18-year-old passenger, the deputy found they were providing inconsistent answers. Torres was arrested on scene for driving on a suspended license, and was released on April 12.
After the car was impounded, the task force obtained a search warrant and found the large stash in a hidden compartment. Knight said the task force is working to obtain arrest warrants for “multiple suspects.”
”A tenth of a gram costs about $20, which is about one to up to three doses,” Knight said.
After 20 years in the EPD, Guy said that he has noticed that the community has become “numbed to the drug activity,” which he partially attributes to the county's marijuana culture.
”Back when I started out, if you had an ounce of heroin, you were really someone,” Guy said. “Now it's just not as big of a deal. Kind of like another day at work.”
While Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills said Eureka is a “drug-laden community,” he was suspicious of whether a stash of that size was targeted only for Humboldt County. Throughout the U.S., Mills said the rise in heroin use can be directly attributed to the increased production and trafficking from Mexican drug cartels.
”An intelligence report from Stratfor (a geopolitical intelligence firm) about four years ago said that the Mexican drug cartels would move from marijuana to more profitable drugs, such as heroin,” Mills said. “So that, in fact, is exactly what happened.”
In November 2013, Humboldt County was listed as one of Northern California's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas by the federal government, which opened it up to new funding resources and a more inclusive partnership with federal agencies.
Coroner Dave Parris said that about half of the average 30 to 35 overdose deaths per year in the county are related to heroin or one of its derivatives, such as morphine.
”Statistically, it is difficult to track,” Parris said. “Often times, overdoses are caused by multiple drug use, some are using street drugs, some are using pharmaceuticals. Heroin can sometimes come back with a false reading of morphine.”
Of the 174 accidental overdose deaths in the county from 2009 to 2013, four deaths were determined to be directly caused by heroin, but 39 deaths were caused by opiates and opioids such as oxycodone and morphine, according to data from the county Department of Health and Human Services Alcohol and Other Drugs program.
Multi-drug overdoses were the most frequent cause of death, with 98 deaths during the five-year period.
”It's becoming a trend, and it's being used more and more all of the time,” Parris said.
While heroin was mainly injected using a hypodermic needle in decades past, Knight said he has seen a rise in people smoking it or ingesting pharmaceutical opiates such as Oxycontin.
”A lot of the stigma with heroin among the youth is not there, when it used to be,” Knight said. “Smoking it is just as addictive as injecting it with a needle.”
Despite these other methods, Guy said officers in the POP unit are still arresting the same users “over and over again” -- and they still find plenty of needles.
”We took a guy to jail the other day who had a syringe broken off in his forearm,” Guy said.
After California passed Proposition 36 in 2000, non-violent drug offenders could choose to enroll in court-mandated drug treatment programs as part of their probation.
From 2012 to 2013, 557 clients entered the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services' Alcohol and Other Drugs program, with about 400 being sent by the court. The rest signed themselves up.
Alcohol and Other Drugs supervising health clinician and Healthy Moms program director Sue Grenfell said the mandated treatment may seem forced, but it is also effective.
”Those who have the court behind them are going to be more successful than someone who is self-referred because it helps them stay accountable for their actions, especially if they know they're accountable to their probation officer,” Grenfell said.
Of the 557 clients, 133 of the court-referred patients completed the program, compared to 42 of the self-referred clients during the two-year period. Another 68 court-referred clients and 40 self-referred clients left the program with a satisfactory progress determination, meaning they did not complete the program but were showing signs of headway.
In the Healthy Moms program -- an addiction treatment program for pregnant mothers or mothers of young children -- Grenfell said that alcohol and meth abuse are the most prevalent addictions. About one in 10 were being treated for heroin use.
”Addiction can touch any part of the population. It's pretty non-discriminatory,” Grenfell said. “No one starts out using drugs and alcohol to become an addict. It starts because it is either fun, or that's the only way they know how to cope with their emotions. Some people are raised in families where the culture of violence or drug addiction is all they know.”
Despite the intent of the programs, Guy said he does not think it is not enough.
”I don't see a solution in sight,” Guy said. “A depressed economy tends to lead to more drug abuse and activity.”
Knight said education and early communication will be “key” to reversing the rising trend of heroin abuse.
”Until we stop the demand, there will always be a supply,” Knight said.