March 1, 2015

(Sioux City Journal - Kirby Kaufman)

An old drug is making a comeback. And local authorities say it's only a matter of time before more of the highly addictive drug hits Sioux City streets.

According to the Iowa Poison Control Center, heroin never left the drug-abuse scene. While its popularity waned in the early 2000's, there's been an upsurge in heroin since 2009.

“Drugs are the engine that drives crime in Sioux City," said police Chief Doug Young. "The majority of the crime that happens in Sioux City has a drug nexus.”

After heroin use increased three years ago in larger metropolitan areas on the East Coast, it slowly spread west, said Young, who serves on the executive board for the Midwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas. The organization consists of federal, state and local agencies geared toward preventing drug-related crimes.

“We have a small presence of heroin in the Siouxland area,” Young said. “Based on what we’re hearing, we’ll eventually see a lot more of it.”

Scott Smith, who oversees the Drug Enforcement Administration in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said the opium-based drug – also called brown tar heroin – will travel to western Iowa from Cedar Rapids where it’s become a growing problem.

Iowa's heroin comes from Chicago, which has become a large hub for heroin users in the Midwest, he said. Heroin and meth both come to Chicago from Mexico.

Heroin’s resurgence was brought to the national forefront last year when actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died after he overdosed on the drug in his New York apartment.

Its use has increased in the north central portion of the United States, which includes Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, according to a DEA report released in November.

In Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York, heroin has become such a problem that police departments have equipped officers with an injectable drug called naloxone, which reverses the effects of a heroin overdose and could potentially save lives.

Young said an influx of heroin would drive additional drug-related crimes in Sioux City. Prevention efforts would include educating people about the dangers of using the illegal, sometimes lethal substance, he said.

In 2014, 16 – less than 1 percent – of 4,633 drug users who participated in rehabilitation programs at Jackson Recovery Centers in Sioux City reported heroin use, according to a statistics report.

The most popular abused drugs were alcohol, marijuana and methamphetamine, the report said.

Rachel Wurth, a nurse practitioner at Siouxland Community Health who serves as assistant medical director at Jackson Recovery Centers, said most users who abuse prescription narcotic pain medications switch to heroin because the drug serves as an alternative opioid – a chemical similar to morphine – that provides similar or stronger effects on the brain.

Wurth said people who abuse pain medication switch to heroin because it's often cheaper and easier to obtain.

Continued heroin use can cause heart and lung failure and even death, Wurth said.

“You become physically addicted to an opioid, so unless you continuously supply your body with opioid you’re going to go through withdrawal (if you stop using it)," she said. “They become physically dependent on it, and it changes their brain.”

Heroin likely will appear in greater quantities in Sioux City and Woodbury County, said sheriff's Maj. Todd Wieck.

“Your marijuana is always around. That never changes,” Wieck. “We’re not seeing a lot of (heroin) yet, but we probably will.”

Stephen Thomas, who heads the Sioux City DEA, said more of the drug is coming from Mexico.

“Ever since the border has been tightened and the war in Afghanistan, we’re finding a lot of Mexican heroin coming into the United States," he said.

Mexico became a source of illegal drugs trafficked into the U.S. after Congress made an agreement with pharmaceutical companies in 1996 that limited and monitored the purchase of cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine, an ingredient used in making methamphetamine.

“It’s coming, and these trends seem to hit the right and left coasts first – then they work their way into the Midwest,” Thomas said.

“Drugs are like clothing," he said. "You had the bell-bottoms in the '60s. They were a big thing, and they faded out. Now they’re coming back.”

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