PRESTONSBURG — As restrictions on prescription painkillers become tighter in the wake of new legislation, officials battling substance abuse in Eastern Kentucky say some addicts are turning to more illicit markets to get their fix.
Heroin is growing in popularity across Appalachia, according to law enforcement officers and substance abuse counselors, who say they are seeing a surge in “black tar” heroin from Mexico.
Mike Vance, a partner in VanArk Behavioral Management, says heroin has not really been a problem in Eastern Kentucky throughout his career, but he is beginning to see more of it in recent months.
“I’m in my 43rd year of doing alcohol and drug counseling, and until last year, I had only seen one case of heroin addiction,” Vance said. “Only one. And in the last six or eight months, it’s popping up. And black tar is one of the things they’re doing.”
Keith Napier, Big Sandy Task Force manager with Operation UNITE, said heroin is not the only drug on the rise.
“It appears over the last year or so, we’re starting to see a slight decrease in the prescription drugs, but it also appears we’re seeing an increase in the meth labs that we’re finding, and also heroin,” Napier said.
Napier, who spoke to the monthly meeting of Communities Against Drug Addiction, held Tuesday at Pit Stop BBQ, said black tar is becoming popular simply because it is widely available.
Jim Recktenwald, a substance abuse counselor with the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Training Center, in Thelma, agreed.
“Doctors are beginning to be a little bit more careful,” Recktenwald said. “There’s a little more training on that. And as those sources are drying up, people are turning to, basically, it’s Mexican heroin that’s coming in. Because it’s accessible and it’s cheap.”
Vance said there have been instances of addicts attempting to sneak heroin into a treatment center. However, while he is seeing heroin surge in popularity, he believes the drug is simply serving as a replacement for prescription drugs.
“They’re not addicted to it, yet,” Vance said. “They’re mixing it with their other drugs. It’s something new for them, something different. A lot of them like the pain pills better, but can’t get them.”
While all counties in the Big Sandy area are beginning to see declines in prescription painkiller abuse, Recktenwald said the rate of addiction is not changing, but that addicts are simply turning to different drugs.
“One of the things that we seeing is a dropoff in some areas, but a resurgence in other areas,” Recktenwald said. “As we’re gathering the 2012 data around the counties, we’re finding that the death rate is still 1-out-of-4 of the deaths that’s occurring in some of the counties is a drug-related death. And that’s a pretty high ratio — 1-out-of-4 deaths in the county. So we haven’t really seen any data so far that we can say, ‘OK, we can use this to predict where it’s going, up or down.’”
Recktenwald said although officials are beginning to see some success in controlling prescription abuse, there is still much work to be done to tackle the root cause of addiction.
“As we have a resurgence of heroin and things like that coming in, we can expect that that’s likely to show an increase down the road in the death rate,” Recktenwald said. “I don’t think we’ve got this problem under control, by a long shot.”