On Monday, August 14, a routine traffic stop in Springfield became a clear sign of a growing problem in the community. Something didn’t seem right with the passenger and driver’s behavior, so police had their drug dog, Danner, sniff out the truck.
Danner led Springfield police to six caulking guns filled with six kilos of heroin worth over $900,000 on the street. This latest bust by Springfield police exposed the magnitude of demand for heroin in Lane County.
Despite pulling a jaw-dropping amount of the deadly drug off the street, arrests for possession of heroin are on the rise in Eugene.
In 2016 and 2015, the Eugene Police Department made 195 and 143 arrests for possession of heroin respectively. As of September 26, Eugene PD arrested 272 individuals for possession of heroin this year.
Heroin itself is harmful to the user, but the societal consequences of addiction also brings damage to the user’s community.
Chris Wig, the programs director at Emergence Addiction and Behavioral Therapies in Eugene, said that drug use is not a victimless crime. Drug use and crime go hand-in-hand.
“People didn’t sign up to get their cars and houses broken into so you could steal money for drugs,” Wig said.
Offenses such as identity theft and property crimes — burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft — are more common in Eugene than they are in Oregon as a whole and other parts of the country.
Marty Wilde, the Executive Director of the Lane County Medical Society and a former prosecutor in Eugene, said that certain crimes are often associated with drug use.
“I used to joke with my friends and say that out of the dozens of identity theft cases I prosecuted maybe one wasn’t related to drug use,” said Wilde.
With the increased rates of arrests for possession of heroin and the high rates of property crime, the debate around treating addicts is rising to the forefront of public dialogue.
Wig said that when Patricia Perlow became Lane County’s District Attorney in July 2015, she increased focus on addiction treatment; the previous district attorney did not have enough money to prosecute every case of drug possession.
“Addicts were let out and [would] reoffend and rack up several possession charges, then the prosecutor would file on all those charges and they would go to prison,” Wig said.
Wig explained that the new district attorney champions the idea of treating addicts instead of incarcerating them.
“It saves people’s lives in the community, but it also limits the effects of mass incarceration. It stops people from committing crimes and stops destroying families,” Wig said.
One method for treating addicts is through drug court, which Wig and his organization work with. The DA will offer treatment as an option if they plead guilty to the charge.
“In order to get into drug court, one must first plead guilty to a crime involving drugs,” Wig said. “There’s not a lot of soft admits to drug court — you have to be pretty deep in your addiction to be offered drug court.”
From Prescriptions to Syringes
One of the main contributors to heroin use is prescription painkillers.
From small Rust Belt towns to sleepy beach communities, pills such as oxycodone and morphine are turning recovering patients into everyday heroin users.
On top of being cheap and abundant, heroin can be even more potent and potentially lethal when dealers add cutting agents — substances as dangerous as fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times as potent as morphine.
Wig said about two-thirds of his clients in drug court started their addictions by abusing prescription painkillers, and then switched to heroin.
Having knowledge of his patient’s stories allows Wig to identify what he thinks is the main culprit behind the rise of addiction. He said the pharmaceutical industry is “at best complicit” and “is probably the main driver of the opiate crisis.” And he credits this to the industry misinforming doctors in the late ‘80s through early 2000s about when and how to prescribe prescription painkillers.
“Opiate painkillers are good for about seven days after a procedure, maybe even 14,” Wig said. “They shouldn’t be refillable prescriptions. Opiates just mask the pain.”
Wilde shares the same opinion. With the available information given at the time, doctors did not necessarily know the dangers of opiates.
“Doctors wanted their patients to be comfortable, and opiates were very easy to prescribe at the time,” Wilde said.
The crisis is not limited to small Rust Belt towns. Wig referenced New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as a politician who is personally aware of drugs’ toll on families and communities.
“Christie talks about this guy who he went to law school with and made partner at his firm,” Wig said. “He had the family, the money, the white picket fence. Then he got a back injury and started taking pills. It unraveled. He lost his prescription and started buying pills on the street. Then he started doing heroin and his wife and kids left
him. He ended up dying homeless. This guy who made millions of dollars ended up dying on the street because of opiates.”
In an effort to limit mass incarceration and expand access to treatment, the Oregon Legislature took action to address the issue of drug possession. House Bill 2355, which became law on August 15, reclassifies possession of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine to a misdemeanor.
The bill attracted criticism from both sides of the aisle, and even Wig has reservations about the outcomes of the law.
Wig said that more drug users in rural counties will spend up to 364 days in jail for a misdemeanor, and that there will be less access to treatment due to the fact that misdemeanor crimes are not worthy of rehabilitation.
“The reclassification will have pretty serious unintended consequences, and will hurt the people it intends to help.”
Holding Pharmaceutical Companies Accountable
Several states, counties and cities are already taking legal action against the pharmaceutical industry. Multnomah County is suing several large drug companies for $250 million for doctors over-prescribing painkillers.
With more overdoses occurring every day, Wig has one prediction for the fate of the pharmaceutical industry and the states affected by the crisis.
“I see tobacco-level settlements coming to states affected by prescription painkillers, especially states in the Rust Belt.”
Correction: Marty Wilde is a former prosecutor.