You're just an accident or surgery away from becoming a heroin addict

by: John Knicely Updated:

SEATTLE -  A drug problem is taking over Western Washington.  If you think it doesn't affect you, think again.  The DEA calls heroin public enemy number one, and it all starts with prescription painkillers.

You may find it hard to believe you’re just a surgery or accident away from a heroin addiction.  But those who see it every day know its reality.

“It's the soccer moms, the high school athletes, everyone under the sun,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Matthew Barnes.

The path to heroin typically starts with an addiction to prescription painkillers, often from a surgery or accident.  It’s cases like Josh Martin, a former UCLA football player, who spoke to KIRO 7 from a Chehalis jail cell.  An injury ended his career and he became addicted to painkillers.  Then, last year police say he threatened a man with a gun and smashed into a police cruiser following a chase.  They found heroin in his car.

  “I had everything in the world going for me,” said Martin.  “I have a college degree. I played college football.”

Beattrice Gailey knows first-hand. She's a recovering heroin addict and now a counselor at Seadrunar Drug Rehab in Seattle.

“The only thing different between heroin and the pill is the form,” she said.  “It wasn't about getting high, it's about staying well.”

It may sound strange but Dr. Russ Carlisle of the Swedish Emergency Department says the addiction makes you more sensitive to pain.  So the more you take, the more you need.  Prescription drugs and heroin offer the same high.  Both are opiates.

“There is a big crossover we know now between prescription drug abuse to heroin use,” he said.

A Washington law that took effect in 2012 is playing a key role.  It cracks down on doctor shopping for prescription painkillers by creating a statewide database.  It’s a law Dr. Carlisle blames for the rise in heroin, but ultimately still supports.

Once you’re hooked on painkillers, and can't get them from a doctor, one pill will cost about $80 on the streets.

“For heroin it drops down to $10, $20, so there's a dramatic difference,” said Gailey.

Special Agent Barnes shared a disturbing personal story.

“I have kids in pretty good high schools now in the Seattle area, and they’re talking about heroin getting combined with marijuana and smoked on lunch breaks and everything else,” said Barnes.

 In his day job Barnes is seeing heroin more and more saying demand dictates the supply.  He calls heroin public enemy number 1 right now across Puget Sound.  The DEA is seeing a big increase in heroin busts.  A bust on March 13 netted more than 56 pounds of heroin from 14 locations.  

Barnes says it's coming here from the drug cartels in Mexico.  And the cartels are setting up drug cells right in your back yard.

“They weave their way right into middle class America” he said.  “They tend not to do business where they live so they blend into their surroundings.”

Heroin is really taking off in ages 18-29 according to a leading drug researcher Caleb Banta-Green at the University of Washington.  And heroin deaths are on the rise.  Since 2009, prescription painkiller overdoses have dropped 32 percent, while heroin overdoses have jumped 71 percent.  Ninety-eight people in King County died of overdose in 2012.

Of course you want to avoid that path so you should know you can quickly become addicted prescription painkillers.

“I've seen people have withdrawals in a couple weeks,” said Dr. Carlisle.

Here are signs of addiction to look out for in yourself or loved ones: you're going to feel uncomfortable, you may develop nausea, increased susceptibility to pain, develop intense craving.

Now that heroin use is spreading, doctors are encouraging everyone to know what to do if you encounter someone overdosing.  STOPOVERDOSE.ORG has everything you need to know.