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Heroin use on the rise locally, officials advise caution about its deadliness

POLSON — The use of black tar heroin is on the rise in Lake County, local officials say.

Lake County Undersheriff Ben Woods says heroin is slowly replacing heavy-duty prescription narcotics that used to be easier to obtain.

Some of these opiate-based prescription painkillers, such as Oxycontin, Lortab, Oxycodone or Fentanyl, have been restructured so it’s not as easy to get high off them, Woods said.

The Lake County Sheriff’s Office found 12 grams of heroin in a bust last month. That followed nine arrests for heroin possession and seven arrests for distribution or intent to sell the narcotic in 2016.

Woods said the number of heroin-related arrests for previous years is not available, but deputy county attorney James Lapotka said the county is “seeing more and more of it.”

“Last year I got one (case) per month,” he said. “Before that I got one or two per year.”

Heroin used to come from Asia, but now it’s coming from Mexico, he said, noting that it is trafficked up the West Coast and then through Pasco, Spokane and Coeur d’Alene.

Tribal gangs in Washington have loose affiliations with Mexican gangs, Lapotka said. “It’s much less organized” when it comes through the tribes, he said.

Users can smoke or inject heroin, which comes from the poppy plant. When a poppy plant stalk is cut, the sap oozes out and dries into a black tar product, he said.

One can use chemical processes to refine it, but that involves a laboratory and adds to the cost. This product, which is more common on the East Coast, is known as “china white,” Lapotka said.

A small piece of black tar heroin can be broken off, heated in a spoon and inhaled or mixed with water, filtered with a Q-tip and injected into veins, he said.

Heroin has an effect on the body very similar to opiate-based prescription painkillers, Sheriff Don Bell said.

Woods notes that it is sold for around $100 a gram in Spokane and $350 a gram in the Mission Valley.

One-tenth of a gram is the typical usage amount, Woods said. These “points” sell for $35 to $50 locally. A user can “shoot up” about three times per point, he said.

District Court Judge James A. Manley has researched black tar heroin and said it is easier to die from a heroin-related overdose than from methamphetamine. Lapotka said he’s seen only one or two meth-related overdoses in five years.

According to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, the number of opioid-related deaths nationwide has nearly quadrupled to more than 165,000 since 1999.

Lapotka said there is a bill in the Montana Legislature, HB 333 sponsored by Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, that would authorize law enforcement agencies to administer the inhaler Narcan to someone suspected of a heroin or opiate overdose. The inhaler, which uses Naloxone, reverses the overdose and has been used by eastern states.

“In many states, it’s standard for a first responder to carry,” Lapotka said.

He notes that those who are having difficulty overcoming addiction to painkillers or other drugs are encouraged to call Western Montana Addiction Services at 883-7310 or the CSKT Tribal Health Department at 745-3525.

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