DEADLY HEIGHTS: The threat of heroin in Livingston (part 1)
Law enforcement officials say they are fighting a rapid increase — what they've called a possible epidemic — of heroin use and overdoses in Livingston County.
At least 10 people have died in the county this year because of drug overdoses, according to statistics provided by seven of the county's nine law enforcement agencies.
Meanwhile, a multijurisdictional investigation could result in criminal charges against 30 or more people throughout southeastern Michigan for delivering or manufacturing heroin, cocaine and marijuana, Hamburg Township Police Chief Steve Luciano confirmed.
Details are expected to be revealed in a news conference at the Hamburg Township Police Department this week.
However, the Daily Press & Argus has learned that more than a dozen people — ranging in age from 18 to 51, and living throughout Livingston County — have been charged in District Court in Howell with drug offenses as a result of the investigation. Of that number, about half had been arraigned as of Thursday, while the rest had warrants for their arrest, according to court records.
"You can't believe the shock and despair on a parent's face when you tell them their kid has overdosed on heroin," Luciano said. "The return of heroin is real; it's dangerous and everyone needs to be aware of it. ... We saw such an increase, we wanted to find the source."
The original source can be found in the poppy fields of Afghanistan, an undercover drug officer said. It came to the United States via New York, and then filtered into Detroit, where it found its way to Livingston County residents.
"The kilos come in from overseas," said the undercover officer, whom the Daily Press & Argus is not identifying due to the nature of his work.
The agent said Chicago is the source city for the cocaine supply in Livingston County.
The 10 overdose deaths this year in Livingston County is nearly double the half-dozen recorded as recently as 2006.
The increased heroin use in drug-related incidents and overdoses led Hamburg Township police to team with the Drug Enforcement Administration's Detroit office and Livingston and Washtenaw Narcotics Enforcement Team to open what it dubbed a "priority-target case," which identified who was arrested in the past week.
Heroin is an illegal, highly addictive drug that the U.S. Department of Justice said is "the most abused and the most rapidly acting of all opiates."
Heroin, which is a powder that ranges in color from off-white to brownish, is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from certain varieties of poppy plants.
Heroin can be injected, smoked, sniffed or snorted.
Local police said they knew of one woman who admitted that she injected heroin into her vaginal area because it would hide the needle marks.
Detective 1st Lt. Monica Yesh of the Michigan State Police said injection is the most effective way to administer heroin, but undercover drug officers are also finding local residents who consume "bindles" of heroin.
A bindle is about 1 gram and comes in a folded piece of paper about the size of a lottery ticket, an undercover agent said.
Intravenous users typically experience the rush within seven seconds to eight seconds after injection, while intramuscular injection produces a slower onset of the euphoric feeling, taking up to eight minutes, according to Justice Department information.
When heroin is sniffed or smoked, the peak effects of the drug are usually felt within 10-15 minutes, the Justice Department reported.
Long-term effects are collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, cellulite, and liver disease. Pulmonary complications also can result.
One of the most significant effects of heroin use is addiction.
Yesh, who also serves as LAWNET supervisor, said drug addicts can spend their lives trying to re-create the intense effect they had the first time they got high.
"They want to achieve that initial high, but their brain can't achieve it again because they've killed brain cells," she said. "They spend the rest of their lives doing drugs, trying to achieve that initial high again."
The Heroin User
Heroin has been around for decades, and was known in the 1960s and 1970s as the drug favored by "hard-core users," but narcotics officers said the illegal drug is making a comeback because it is cheaper and readily available.
The "typical" user cannot be defined by any specific category. He or she is the young and old; the unemployed and the employed; as well as professionals, such as teachers, engineers and doctors.
"It is quickly becoming the drug of choice among those who use illegal substances," Luciano said. "It used to be known as a predominately street addict's drug, or inner-city-type drug, but there's a significant increase of usage among young adults."
In Livingston County in the last five years, there have been more than three dozen deaths attributed to illegal drugs, many of them heroin-related, according to statistics provided by seven of the county's local police departments. The dead include men and women who ranged in age from 19 to 55, and who lived throughout Livingston County communities.
Among the dead were Paul Chester, 55, and Ryann Anderson, 25, both of whom were found dead in February and November, respectively, at the same home in Hamburg Township.
Those who survived an overdose included a 14-year-old Howell-area girl, whom police said intentionally consumed between 10 and 16 Coricidin pills in April; and two 19-year-old Howell-area men who used heroin in separate incidents in July and August.
Yesh said heroin cannot be purchased on the street corner in Livingston County as it can in some Detroit neighborhoods, but it is still readily available.
"You have to know someone to purchase it," she explained.
While the Detroit supply can be traced to Afghanistan, the Justice Department reported that South America and Mexico supply most of the illicit heroin marketed in the United States.
The Taliban briefly banned poppy cultivation in 2000 in an effort to gain U.S. diplomatic recognition and aid, according to national news reports. Afghanistan provides more than 90 percent of the world's heroin, according to news reports.
When the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, poppies were grown on about 18,800 ares. Under the American occupation that followed the defeat of the Taliban, poppy cultivation spread to every province and overall production increased — by 60 percent in 2006, according to a story in The New Yorker magazine.
The New Heroin
Law enforcement officials said the heroin today is "more pure" than it was in the 1960s and 1970s.
Decades ago, an abuser could expect to receive a mixture that was 14 percent heroin, which was mixed with sugar, starch or another cutting agent.
In 2006, heroin was being mixed with fentanyl, a synthetic opiate about 80 percent stronger than morphine, which was linked to nearly 200 deaths in the Detroit area.
Today, the ratio is about 50 percent heroin and 50 percent cutting agent.
"It's not being cut as much, so it's much stronger," Luciano said. "There's no way to tell when you buy a packet or bindle of heroin how pure it is.
"They are thinking they are going to get high, and friends are finding them dead," the chief said.
BY LISA ROOSE-CHURCH • DAILY PRESS & ARGUS • OCTOBER 12, 2009