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How Shutting Down Heroin Dealers Can Increase Overdose Risk

In the second of a two-part series on Heroin, Simon Thompson looks at how shutting down heroin dealers can put users at higher risk of overdose.

  • Heroin and paraphernalia used to cook, prepare and inject heroin for confiscated in Indiana

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    Photo: Courtesy of the Hamilton/Boone County Drug Task Force

    Heroin and paraphernalia used to cook, prepare and inject heroin.

  • The Hamilton/Boone County Drug Task Force finds black tar heroin, mexican brown heroin and white chinese heroin on Indiana's streets.

    Image 2 of 5

    Photo: Simon Thompson

    The Hamilton/Boone County Drug Task Force finds black tar heroin, Mexican brown heroin and white Chinese heroin on Indiana's streets.

  • A hit of black tar heroin confiscated from a user by the Hamilton/Boone county drug task force

    Image 3 of 5

    Photo: Courtesy of the Hamilton/Boone County Drug Task Force

    A hit of black tar heroin confiscated from a user by the Hamilton/Boone County Drug Task Force.

  • Heroin is wrapped up in scraps of paper, foil and even packed into balloons

    Image 4 of 5

    Photo: Courtesy of the Hamilton/Boone County drug task force

    Heroin is wrapped up in scraps of paper, foil and even packed into balloons.

  • Recovering addict Jason Ricci says heroin addicts are always looking for a more powerful heroin

    Image 5 of 5

    Photo: Simon Thompson

    Recovering addict Jason Ricci says addicts are always looking for the most powerful heroin.

Ten years ago when Major Aaron Dietz started on the Hamilton/Boone County Drug Task Force cocaine was his number one opponent.

But since 2006, cocaine usage in the U.S. has dropped by half , and it’s continuing to decline. Heroin meanwhile, has picked up slack. Recent numbers show usage has increased 44 percent since 2007.

“It’s become heroin in the heartland if you will, rural communities, middle-upperclass and it’s not specific. It’s touched every class.” Dietz says.

What’s In Heroin?

Dietz says dealers will cut their heroin with whatever they can get their hands on to stretch it out and make it more potent.

“Depending on how much they cut it or what they call it – on the street term stepping on that heroin – they can take a small amount of heroin and double it and double the profits,” he says.

Heroin is mixed with other street drugs, prescription and over the counter pharmaceuticals, even common household products such as sugar, powdered milk or rat poison.

While mixing heroin with milk powder and sugar weakens it–cutting it with over the counter and prescription pharmaceuticals can make it more potent. Prescription painkiller Fentanyl, can be as much as 100 times more powerful than the heroin it’s mixed with.

‘Nobody Tests Dope First’

Jason Ricci is one of best the harmonica players in the world, but he lost his career to addiction. He says when addicts are buying heroin, they’re not asking a lot of questions.

“Nobody tests dope first,” he says. “They don’t say well ok well let me do a little bit and see how strong it is. I never met anybody ever who does that. It is amazing that there are not more deaths,” Ricci says.

Ricci says a lot of addicts think they can tell what they are getting based on the look and the smell of it. But really it is not until someone overdoses or overdoses and dies, that they know just how potent it is.

“When somebody overdoses everybody in town wants to know where they got it from not to stay away from it – to go get it – because that is obviously the good shit!” Ricci says.

Effectiveness Of Targeting Dealers Is Limited

The number one goal of the Hamilton and Boone County Drug Task Forces is to shut dealers down.

But Dietz acknowledges the effectiveness of that strategy is really limited; if you shut down one dealer, addicts will just find another one.

With all the different ways street heroin is cut, users are put at higher risk of overdose and death.

“More people will die there is no question about it,” Dietz says. “Unfortunately, as tragic as it may sound, it will happen. The police can only do so much; we can’t arrest our way out it,” Dietz says.

According to the DEA, heroin available in Indiana ranges from 10 percent to 70 percent in purity – meaning addicts could be shooting something with as much as seven times the potency of what they’re used to without even realizing it.

“When they switch and that source of heroin comes from somebody else that purity could be much, much higher,” says Dietz. “The problems comes into it when they use that heroin in the same amount the potential of death is there.”

In attempt to reduce overdose deaths, in 2009 the German government actually began providing addicts with regulated heroin at a consistent potency. The next year, heroin overdose deaths dropped 8 percent.

In Southeastern Indiana, Dearborn County Prosecutor Aaron Negangard has watched as the amount of heroin coming into his community skyrocketed.

In 2006, he implemented a rigorous enforcement program to deter first time users and limit the accessibility of heroin. He says penalties and jail time are often the only real catalyst for longterm addicts to get clean.

“Europeans are different than Americans – they don’t have supersize meals over there. Americans think big. They always try to push things to the limit and I don’t think everything that may work there always culturally fits over here,” Negangard says.

Recovery Is A Long Road

Addictions counselor Mark Graeser says people are becoming addicted to heroin after shooting it up just three times.

“They’ve chosen a path because at some point they did choose to experiment. They chose to use something recreationally- they chose to abuse a substance – but that choice quickly evaporates and its no longer a choice for them,” Graeser says.

Health professionals say on average it takes an addicts eight attempts at treatment  before they really recover and stay clean.

This is Ricci’s second attempt.

Now six months sober, he works at the Recovery and Engagement Center in Bloomington and says that Indiana has actually been a good place for him to get his life back together.

“I’ve accepted it as sort of an insulin to a diabetic,” says Ricci. “I can say truthfully, if I do those things everyday for the rest of my life I will never get high. But I can’t tell you that I will never get high again,” he says.

Ricci will be able to leave the state again in May, but he’ll likely stay a little while longer.

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