The numbers show heroin has made its way to Alabama.
The Drug Enforcement Administration attributed 14 overdose deaths to the drug in 2010 in Birmingham. In 2012, that number was in the upper 70s, said Clay Morris, assistant special agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Alabama.
"That's more than a 400 percent increase in overdose deaths in the Birmingham area alone," Morris said.
Law enforcement agencies say that the growth in prescription pill addiction is paving the way for heroin and the drug cartels from Atlanta and Mexico looking to sell it.
Law enforcement officials have been shocked at the number of deaths in recent years and worry about the public's lack of awareness about the problem, which contributes to consistent death tolls.
Alabama is third nationally in the number of prescriptions for hydrocodone per 100,000 people nationwide, Morris said.
"There's a cycle of addiction. People start at hydrocodone, then go to Oxycodone and other opiates," he said. "Eventually, that's going to circle back and then they are going to end up at heroin."
So why start? Morris said it is a natural progression for those addicted to opiates and prescription pills, who want that high but at a lower price.
"Heroin is cheaper than prescription pharmaceuticals are," he said. The average street price of prescription pills is $1 per milligram. Morris said that users can more easily find a more potent high for $10 to $20 if they use heroin instead.
"It's cheaper and it is more readily available now, and those working through that cycle of addiction of opiate-based drugs are going to naturally go to heroin."
Ending up at heroin, Morris said, is the worst-case scenario, as the highly addictive drug causes horrible withdrawal symptoms in its users, increasing over time.
Eventually, Morris said, heroin addicts are using not just for the high that lasts about half an hour, but also to avoid stomach pains, and keep other withdrawal symptoms from starting.
Because heroin slows the heart and internal organs, users feel warmth at first. That is also why it is so dangerous, he said.
"The problem with overdose here in Alabama is the purity level of the heroin. In samples of heroin we have seized, there have been samples with a potency of 98.2 percent pure," Morris said. "You are not going to survive if you stick a needle in your arm with heroin that is 98.2 percent pure."
The DEA is seeing Mexican brown powder heroin in Alabama, Morris said. He said the heroin is coming from nearby drug trafficking hub Atlanta and directly from the southwest border of Texas.
It may be a surprise to learn that the strung-out stereotype of a heroin user doesn't fit in Alabama.
According to the DEA, most heroin users in Alabama are upper- to middle-class men and women between the ages of 17 and 25.
"That's consistent with most of the overdose deaths we've had," Morris said. "It's not the typical person that people of think of as a heroin addict. That has really changed."
Morris said heroin knows no boundaries, whether it be race, economic status or age, when it comes to its users. "It has no socioeconomic or racial barriers - it has no boundaries at all," Morris said.
The epidemic of prescription pill abuse among young people in America and heroin addiction cannot be separated, Morris said. He said pill abuse is leading to an increase in heroin addiction among young people, with kids starting to try pills not prescribed to them at as young as age 12.
The Partnership for a Drug-Free Community in Madison County recently met to discuss the problem, which is the main focus for the partnership's latest project - Today's Youth Tomorrow's Leaders (TYTL). The group of high school students formed a team to combat the prescription pill abuse epidemic locally, and is aware that it leads to heroin use.
Sgt. Jerry King with the Madison-Morgan County Strategic Counterdrug Team (STAC) spoke about the pill epidemic and heroin problem at the TYTL meeting on Feb. 6, 2014.
King said some of the regions where heroin has been documented lately are just an hour away from Madison County.
"Luckily it has not taken a hold here as hard as it has in other places," King said at the meeting in February.
King said Huntsville is surrounded by heroin use at the moment, but has not yet fallen victim to the drug in a big way.
"He is absolutely correct," Morris said of King's comments. "There have been reports of heroin in surrounding places, Guntersville and other cities right there nearby."
TYTL hopes to prevent heroin from returning to Madison County by educating youth about the dangers of prescription pill abuse.
According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free Community, one in six young people have tried a pill not prescribed to them, and middle school has become the average beginner's age.
"We see this across the nation, it's not just Alabama," Morris said of prescription pill abuse. He said that throughout the past four years, prescription pill abuse has increased four-fold in Alabama alone.
Nationally, prescription pill and heroin use has increased since 2008, Morris said.
In Birmingham, nearly 80 people died of overdoses related to heroin in 2012 alone. Morris said the overdose figures didn't fall in 2013, which stunned law enforcement.
The problem is partially due to people not realizing there is a heroin problem, he said.
"People don't realize that drug distribution is killing this many people," he said. "If we had 80 people killed by tractor trailers in 2013, or from burglaries or robberies, the city, the people, we would be in uproar."
Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely said he has seen a slight increase in heroin activity lately, and rumors are it is coming to town.
"We just, over the past couple months, have started to get information that there are a few people who have been going to Birmingham and getting it and made a couple arrests for it," Blakely said.
For those charged with trafficking heroin, the sentence can run up to life in prison.
Morris said if the DEA arrests a heroin trafficking organization that is charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin, each person charged is automatically looking at a 10-year prison sentence.
He said the DEA gets involved based on quantities and trafficking amounts but the current problem has surpassed normal protocol, at least in Birmingham.
Nearly 50 people were arrested last year for trafficking heroin in the Birmingham area, he said. Agents arrested anyone from a single dealer on the street to trafficking groups alike, he said. "It was a significant enough safety issue that if you were selling heroin last year, we were coming after you."
Morris said there are signs when someone may be falling into heroin use.
"Look at their mood swings, change in behavior, if they are withdrawing from people, weight loss, or any other obvious physical changes," Morris said.
Morris said the presence of heroin in North Alabama can't be ignored.
"That is the biggest problem we have now is people understanding we have a problem with heroin," he said. "They don't realize it is killing this many people, and that it could be anyone."
For more information about heroin and its long-term effects, visit the Partnership for a Drug-Free Community website.
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on April 12, 2014 at 7:13 AM, updated April 12, 2014 at 8:09 AM