Heroin use in Boulder shoots up

Heroin-related deaths have more than doubled since last year

Heroin seized in Boulder County
Photo by David Accomazzo

Heroin-related deaths in 2011 in Boulder have more than doubled since last year, according to numbers provided by the Boulder Police Department, and they are on pace to be nearly four times higher than they were last year.

In addition, arrests for heroin possession are on track to nearly triple the total from 2010.

Sgt. Hartkopp of the Boulder County Drug Task Force, who asked to be identified by last name only so as to not compromise undercover operations, tells Boulder Weekly that there has been a marked increased in heroin use within the county during the past two years.

“Most of our heroin-related events take place in the city of Boulder,” Hartkopp says. “For whatever reason, the city of Boulder seems to have a more significant concentration of heroin users as opposed to the county. That could be because of the college scene. I could speculate, but I don’t know.”

Despite the uptick in heroin use, Hartkopp says Boulder still lacks a cohesive heroin scene.

“What we’ve seen are groups that tend to form a bond for a common goal,” Hartkopp says. “Quite often what we’ll see is somebody from within that [group] will drive down to Denver … and pick up the heroin for them and this group.

“We’re seeing that kind of association, but in regards to a subculture that is real prevalent and organized, no. We haven’t seen anything like that.”

The increase in heroin activity observed by city and county police mirrors a statewide rise in heroin and opiate abuse. The Colorado Health Information Dataset (COHID) analyzes data from hospitals in Colorado, and heroin-related hospitalizations in Colorado rose 174 percent from 2000 to 2009, the last year for which data is currently available. Opiate- and narcotic-related hospitalizations rose 360 percent in Colorado during that time.

In Boulder County (COHID doesn’t track hospitalizations by city), heroin hospitalizations were very rare from 2000 to 2008 — no more than two incidents a year, and more often than not, there were none. In 2009, there were six.

Though heroin arrests and hospitalizations are increasing, county health workers haven’t noticed a significant increase in drug users taking advantage of county health services. Carol Helwig, who runs “The Works” needle exchange program for Boulder County Public Health, says there hasn’t been a noticeable increase in people enrolling in needle exchanges.

“We serve injection drug users, not just heroin, but meth, cocaine and anything else,” Helwig says. “We do get new clients — and we have been seeing new clients come in regularly — but it’s not different from any other year.”

Ann Noonan, who is the Addiction Recovery Center (ARC) division manager, says that while the ARC has seen an increase in addiction to prescription opiates such as Vicodin and Percocet, the staff hasn’t noticed any sort of increase in heroin use.

“What we’ve seen is a huge increase in [abuse of] prescription meds, and definitely opiates are one of the more commonly abused prescription meds,” Noonan says. “I’m a little surprised to see that heroin is going up, too.”

As heroin use has increased in Boulder County, abuse of prescription opiates seems to have risen, too. The COHID stats show that from 2000 to 2009, hospitalizations in Boulder County due to opiates and other narcotics increased 400 percent.

There are differences in heroin use between genders.

For male Boulder County residents, heroin hospitalizations tripled from 2000 to 2009, while hospitalization due to opiate and other narcotic use remained constant. The data for women is practically the opposite. Women in Boulder County have shown very low, almost non-existent rates of hospitalization for heroin, but the rate of hospitalizations for opiates has tripled since 2001, after no incidents were reported in 2000.

“Traditionally, we’ve seen women are more likely to abuse prescription medications, and men were more likely to abuse street drugs,” Noonan says. “That’s a trend that we’ve seen over the years. Also, women are more likely to be prescribed those medications, not just to abuse them. So we saw women go into treatment for their doctor with all sorts of mental problems and all sorts of psychological problems or depression and come out with a prescription for [benzodiazepine] or a prescription for pain meds. Men, when they’re distressed, they don’t tend to go to their doctor; they tend to go to the corner bar, their dealer or whatever. You see different styles of solving problems.”

It’s tough to pinpoint why heroin use has increased so much. A 2009 report from the National Drug Information Center, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, points out that as the total number of legal prescriptions written for opiates has risen, abuse of those same drugs has also gone up.

“The increase in use of opioid pain relievers — particularly methadone — has been linked by public health officials with a parallel increase in drug overdose deaths and emergency department visits involving these drugs,” the report reads. “Areas with the highest rates of opioid distribution are those with the highest drug overdose mortality rates.”

The prevalence of prescription opiates might have demystified the effects of heroin. Helwig has observed a few cases where legal opiates ended up serving as a gateway drug for heroin.

“One trend we have seen is younger people are starting to dabble in OxyContin and Vicodin, and then getting addicted physically, and then not being able to afford it,” Helwig says. “Then — just to function, not even to get high — they’ll start using heroine, because it’s cheaper than OxyContin or Vicodin or Percocet on the street.”

Heroin remains as dangerous as ever. It is rarely sold in pure form, and Hartkopp, the Drug Task Force sergeant, says that most of the heroin in Boulder comes from Denver. Sonny Jackson, public information officer for the Denver Police Department, says that DPD regularly tests seized heroin for purity, and the results are all over the place — 8 to 82 percent, Helwig says.

“Heroin is a dirty drug,” Hartkopp says. “It’s a horrible drug compared to a lot of the other ones, as strange as that sounds. What we’ve found is that with heroin addictions … that addiction seems to be much stronger than a lot of the other addictions that we see in other people that we work with.”

Boulder County Public Health offers various services for people addicted to heroin. There is a methadone clinic at 1317 Spruce St., and Boulder County Public Health is offering a pilot program using a drug called suboxone to treat opiate addiction. For more information, call 303-441-1275.

For more information about “The Works” needle exchange program, call 303-413-7500.

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