Now that law enforcement officials and doctors have cracked down on the abuse of prescription painkillers, a growing number of central Kentucky drug addicts are turning to heroin.
“We’ve been finding heroin here, and officers in Lincoln and Boyle are dealing with the same issue,” said Garrard County Sheriff Ronnie Wardrip.
Mercer County also has seen an influx of heroin and is bringing its first cases since the 1970s to a grand jury this spring, said Sheriff Ernie Kelty and Chief Deputy Scott Elder.
Local officials such as Boyle Coroner Dr. Don Hamner and Garrard Coroner Daryl Hodge have not handled a heroin death but are concerned someone in the area will die from a heroin overdose in the near future.
“People who have become addicted to prescription painkillers like OxyContin or Percocet are having a much harder time getting these drugs legally,” said Kentucky State Police Trooper Paul Blanton. “Doctors are wising up.”
Drug manufacturers reformulated OxyContin in 2010 and Opana in 2011 to make it harder for drug abusers to crush the pills and either snort or inject them. While that action made OxyContin — or “hillbilly heroin” as it’s called — virtually useless for hardcore drug addicts, it also led to an increase in heroin abuse, said Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.
“People who have become addicted to painkillers, which are virtually the same thing as street heroin, have to find something to feed their addictions,” Wardrip said.
Addicts who illegally buy prescription painkillers in central Kentucky can expect to pay about $1 per milligram for a pill, according to Blanton. For example, a Percocet pill with 30 milligrams of oxycodone costs about $30. Lortab pills, another type of prescription medication that includes the narcotic hydrocodone, usually costs $8 to $10 a pill. Heroin costs about $30 a “bindle,” Blanton said. Each bindle can get someone high twice; the high from heroin can last up to 24 hours.
Drug traffickers usually transport heroin via Detroit or Cincinnati, Wardrip said.
Law enforcement officials interviewed agreed there is really no way to completely curb drug abuse, whether the substance of choice is prescription medications or marijuana.
A growing number of people believe marijuana is a harmless natural substance but do not seem to realize that many people “graduate” from smoking marijuana to abusing stronger drugs, said Danville Police Chief Tony Gray.
“I don’t see any possible way to get all dangerous drugs off the streets,” Wardrip said. “Putting people in jail for possessing drugs or selling them is not necessarily helpful. These days, people with non-violent drug offenses spend very little time in jail. Then they’re back on the street looking for drugs.”
Wardrip believes that more drug addicts caught committing non-violent crimes should be placed in a structured rehab program rather than jail, but he noted that “halfway houses” are often ineffective for drug abusers.
An inpatient drug treatment program that lasts six to 18 months and requires supervised job placements along with substance abuse counseling could potentially save lives, Wardrip said.