Crushing news came shortly after Cindy Schaffner heard sirens just a few blocks from her Post Falls home.
The sirens, Schaffner learned, were for her 19-year-old daughter, Cathryn Mason.
Cathryn, who loved the outdoors and was majoring in recreation management at North Idaho College, was in critical condition. She’d overdosed on heroin and alcohol. Two days later, she died. That was in May 2014.
“She was a very driven and focused person,” Schaffner said, fighting back tears. “She loved to go on hikes and was full of life. She was celebrating getting good grades for the semester.”
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Schaffner said it was the first time she was aware that her daughter had used drugs.
“She had a strong sense of morals and values and she had faith, but, for whatever reason, she decided to compromise those values,” Schaffner said. “It was a surprise to all of us because she wasn’t a user.”
Cathryn was caught on the edge of what officials refer to as the “heroin tsunami,” a nationwide opioid abuse epidemic.
“We have seen a significant increase in the usage of heroin in our community,” Post Falls Police Chief Scot Haug said. Heroin use is up for two reasons. It’s a recreational drug that causes intense euphoria, but it’s also an opioid painkiller that people turn to when they are taken off prescription medications or when those medications don’t offer as much relief as desired.
Haug said heroin has surpassed methamphetamine as the most common drug, behind marijuana, in his community. His department processed no heroin into its evidence in 2010, but since 2013 it’s obtained about 20 heroin items a year. Haug said he’s aware of several heroin-related deaths across Kootenai County.
It’s not just a law enforcement problem; it’s a community problem.
Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger
Details on heroin use and abuse is sketchy in Idaho, but government statistics show drug-related deaths and arrests up over the past decade. And anecdotally, heroin is making its presence felt around Idaho: On Feb. 5, multiple law enforcement agencies busted an alleged heroin ring that included a Coeur d’Alene physician.
On Jan. 22, a 29-year-old Boise second-grade school teacher was arrested on a felony charge of delivering heroin. And on Sunday, Meridian police arrested and jailed Chandler Clark, 20, of Boise, citing a felony charge of trafficking at least 7 grams but less than 28 grams of heroin.
At least 28,648 people in the U.S. died of causes linked to opioid drugs in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost as many as are killed annually in car crashes. The class of drugs includes heroin and prescription painkillers such as oxycodone.
A CDC report released last year revealed the number of U.S. heroin users has grown by nearly 300,000 over a decade.
President Barack Obama is asking Congress for $1.1 billion in his next budget to combat the opioid abuse epidemic, which has emerged as a 2016 campaign issue. The amount Obama wants to spend over two years is slightly more than the $1 billion he’s requested to expedite cancer treatments.
“Prescription drug abuse and heroin use have taken a heartbreaking toll on too many Americans and their families while straining resources of law enforcement and treatment programs,” the White House said in a statement.
CHEAPER THAN PAINKILLERS
Dr. Joseph Abate, medical director at the nonprofit Heritage Health, said he believes one reason heroin has regained momentum is because it’s cheaper than some prescription painkillers.
“That’s an attraction to people who are using opioids without a doctor’s recommendation,” Abate said. “But people who have been on opioids with a doctor’s recommendation turn to heroin too because they have a problem with tolerance to pain, especially younger people. They may start on low doses of pain medication, then they take more and more to get the same amount of relief. It may not make sense to you or I, but to patients who are trying to get relief ...
“Part of the rise of heroin is that people start on painkillers for legitimate reasons and then it just gets out of control. In the past people received the message that pain could be controlled with the right dosage, but now we’ve learned the hard way that it does nothing more than make a person worse over the long term rather than better.”
They don’t wander into the clinic looking for care. They’re more likely to be found by law enforcement.
Dr. Joseph Abate, medical director at the nonprofit Heritage Health, on people not seeking medical care for heroin addiction
Abate said that while there are good substance abuse treatment programs available, there aren’t a lot of affordable ones. He said providers also need to be educated on who the highest-risk populations are before prescribing medication.
Abate said there has been a push in recent years for providers to monitor patients more closely and lower the maximum doses of painkillers. He said emergency doctors will now oftentimes refer frequent patients back to their primary care providers for pain medication.
Schaffner said that since her daughter died, young women who have struggled or have been tempted have gravitated toward her for support.
“You need to have open communication with your kids and you’ve got to know where they are at,” she said. “If they think you are overbearing, too bad. It’s for their own good.”
Heroin in Idaho
Idaho doesn’t track heroin-related deaths. The state tracks cause of death, which often simply reads “overdose.” From 2003 to 2012, just 25 death certificates listed “heroin overdose” as the cause of death. But the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare says drug-related deaths are rising: 69 drug-related deaths were reported in 2000, compared to 184 in 2009, the most recent available in a 2014 Associated Press report. Government offices were closed Monday and additional details were unavailable.
Idaho doesn’t have estimates of total heroin use, but police tallied 120 heroin arrests in 2012, making up 1.1 percent of all drug arrests. That was a 60 percent increase from 2011, with 75 heroin arrests.
What is heroin?
Heroin is synthesized from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of the Asian opium poppy plant. It appears as a “China white” or brown powder or as a sticky black substance known as “black tar” heroin.
Heroin can be injected, inhaled by snorting or sniffing, or smoked. All three methods deliver the drug to the brain rapidly, contributing to its health risks and high risk for addiction.
The street value of heroin is about $300 per gram, according to police. It is usually sold by the “point” — or tenth of a gram — for $30.