Thursday night at 5:55 PM, a 911 caller reported that one of a group of three men seen using needles to inject drugs in an alley in the 500 block of E Republican was overdosing. It’s been a busy summer of similar anecdotes around Capitol Hill. Seattle Fire Department medics responded to a heroin overdose call earlier in July when two men in their early twenties had both overdosed while sitting in a van at 11th and Pine. A week before just a few blocks away medics responded to two other heroin overdoses within 24 hours of each other.
The exact number of heroin overdoses so far this summer is hard to pin down, but a spokesperson at the Seattle Fire Department said medic units have seen a rise in heroin related calls in Capitol Hill. And it is, of course, not only happening in alleys or the Cal Anderson bathroom. Medics have also been called to ODs in apartment buildings and single family residences on the Hill. The uptick in overdoses in the neighborhood follows a trend of increased ODs of people under 30 in Seattle and around the rest of the state. Experts say more younger users and stronger drugs are partially to blame.
Shilo Murphy, who runs the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance needle exchange in the University District, said there is a “perfect storm” of factors playing into the steady rise in overdoses.
First, the state has cracked down on pain clinics and strengthened regulations on opiate-based pain killers causing more prescription addicts to seek out heroin as a substitute. A recently altered OxyCotin formula has also made it more difficult to snort the drug, common among prescription addicts.
Murphy said he is also seeing an increasing number of inexperienced teens who are injecting heroin instead of snorting or smoking the drug.
And thirdly, the heroin is getting stronger. Murphy said there are three different types of heroin on the street today: black tar, a red-colored tar, and a brown powder — the latter he says is being mixed with other opiates to form a dangerous cocktail. Older heroin users, Murphy said, are not as experienced with the powder which has led to more overdoses as well.
“The strong stuff is becoming more readily available,” Murphy told CHS.
At this point, Hill overdoses apparently haven’t risen as high as the the spike CHS reported in March 2012 when King County was forced to issue a public warning about the drug. Meanwhile, as recently as December 2012, a CHS examination of recent SPD incidents involving drug crimes showed meth to be the criminal drug of choice 5 to 1 over the more expensive — and more deadly — heroin.
Earlier this summer, a University of Washington study showed a rise in overdoses throughout the state, especially among people under 30 in Seattle. Among 18-29 year-olds, heroin abuse treatment was the most commonly sought among any other substance, including alcohol.
The report was authored by heroin abuse expert Dr. Caleb Banta-Green at the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. Green also runs the website stopoverdose.org
The number of opiate deaths have nearly doubled in the last decade, according to the report. In 2009 Seattle had 49 heroin related deaths. In 2012 the number climbed to 84 .
To help curb overdose deaths, Washington has a good Samaritan law that prevents heroin users from being arrested for possession when they call 911 to report an overdose.
Heroin users who have overdosed have a much higher chance of surviving if they are treated with the opioid-inhibitor known as naloxone. In the case of four recent overdoses on Capitol Hill, each user was given naloxone by medics. Each person survived the ordeal.
King County Health runs a naloxone training and distribution program, as does the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance. Murphy said there were more than 500 doses administered from his program alone. However, he said the drug is not nearly as available as it should be.
“It costs $1 for naloxone. Is a life worth $1? If you think so you should be pushing for naloxone to be available everywhere,” he said. “If you don’t think so, do nothing, which is what we’re doing today.”