As heroin ODs rise, Garfield, Eagle, Pitkin agencies consider antidote
March 26, 2017
Heroin is running rampant across the United States.
Though it has been slower to arrive in Garfield and neighboring counties, local law enforcement agencies are putting measures in place to be ready when it does.
"We continue to see heroin much more than I ever have in my 20 years with the department," said Bill Linn, assistant chief at the Aspen Police Department. "Back when I started with the department, we never saw heroin, and now it just continues to build. We've really started to really hear about it over the past five years."
Increasingly, heroin distribution arrests are showing up in Garfield County. Just this month, a Bustang passenger was arrested with an ounce and a half of the drug, and last month, a woman in Rifle was caught with about 5 grams.
Since 2000, the rate of overdose deaths nationwide involving opioids — prescription painkillers and heroin, which are chemically similar — increased 200 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioids and heroin killed about 33,000 Americans in 2015, about the same as the death toll from traffic accidents. As doctors since the mid-1990s began prescribing dramatically more pain medication, which had the consequence of creating tens of thousands of addicts, Mexican gangs began cultivating opium poppies and distributing heroin in the U.S. less expensively than people can get prescription pills on the black market.
Knowledge of this national heroin problem has led area law enforcement agencies to implement new procedures to deal with heroin overdose. A new response protocol for heroin overdose has already been implemented within the Avon Police Department and the Vail Police Department that trains officers to administer the drug naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose and save lives.
Avon Chief of Police Greg Daly said that it involved an hour-long training seminar in which officers were taught to recognize symptoms of when naloxone should be administered if the officer can ascertain that opioids were taken.
"Eagle County hasn't suffered as other districts have, but we've seen more heroin here than there's been in the past," he said.
Vail Police Department Administrative Commander Daric Harvey said that the Vail PD rolled out its new response protocol for heroin overdose on Feb. 1, but has yet to use it in the field.
"We wanted to have a response protocol primarily because while we have not had an issue with heroin as much as other districts we do have folks that drive through with it," he explained. "Just looking regionally, we wanted our folks to be prepared."
Eagle County authorities said they used naloxone Friday at a home near El Jebel, where two men were found dead and a third was hospitalized. The cause of that incident has not been disclosed.
Though police officers are not trained medical professionals, some argue that administering naloxone falls under the Good Samaritan Law in Colorado, and they are therefore not liable.
Local law enforcement leaders are largely in agreement that heroin use in the Roaring Fork Valley and surrounding areas has spiked in the last couple of years.
Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Gary Tillotson has seen a marked increase in calls related to heroin and opiates, and his department has been using a lot more naloxone.
Carrying naloxone is nothing new for EMTs, who have been equipped with the drug for years, said Tillotson. "Naloxone is very quick-acting and can truly be a lifesaving drug."
But overdoses have also been requiring larger doses of naloxone, he said, as heroin is increasingly being laced with the stronger painkiller fentanyl.
Glenwood Springs Lt. Bill Kimminau said Glenwood police haven't started carrying naloxone, though Chief Terry Wilson, who was out on vacation, has been considering it.
BRINGING PEOPLE BACK
Some departments are hesitant to have officers administer a drug. And some law enforcement leaders are unclear what kind of liability their officers would be taking on by making that call.
Kimminau said he couldn't recall any recent heroin deaths in the city, but that's not because there haven't been overdoses. "I think we have been pretty fortunate to bring people back who are overdosing," he said.
In the last year, Kimminau said, emergency teams responded to two overdoses involving the same man. In both cases, they were able to counteract the overdose.
The Glenwood Springs Police Department has been reassured that officers will not be at risk of liability for administering naloxone and that there's no harm in giving it to someone who is not overdosing, but the chief is still cautious about tasking his officers with that responsibility, said Kimminau.
Additionally, Glenwood officers have the fire department EMTs nearby to respond with naloxone.
Where it might do more good is in more remote parts of the county.
Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said there's absolutely been a spike in heroin cases in the county. "There was a time when we never saw any opiate cases, and if we did it was from people passing through."
Just as other drugs surge in popularity at times, opiates seem to be a drug of choice right now, said Vallario.
From an enforcement perspective, that doesn't change law enforcement's tactics much. But the sheriff says it does mean the county needs to support and maintain its drug task force, Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team, which Vallario now chairs.
From a medical standpoint it's concerning because heroin seems to cause more overdoses and deaths, he said.
The sheriff's office hasn't stocked up on naloxone, mainly out of concern about how expensive it would be to outfit and train such a large department. Because the cost is the biggest hurdle, Vallario said he would be interested in a Colorado attorney general's program that distributed 2,500 naloxone kits to 17 Colorado counties in September.
"My position at the moment is that we're not seeing enough of it, and hopefully that doesn't change, to invest in it and have everyone carry it."
Delayed EMS response is always a consideration, said the sheriff. But whereas the Glenwood Springs Police Department might be able to outfit all its cars with naloxone kits, the sheriff's office is much bigger, so the cost would be greater.
Carbondale Lt. Chris Wurtsmith agreed that, while it's had a presence throughout his career, heroin use has been on the rise in the last couple of years.
The Carbondale Police Department started carrying naloxone last year, even before the attorney general's statewide program. That year the department also had its first occasion to use it.
While Carbondale didn't take advantage of the state program, when its stock of naloxone nears expiration, the police department will look into the AG's program, said the lieutenant.
While he's sure there has been an increase, Wurtsmith said the department doesn't track the number of heroin overdoses or resulting deaths, as it merely assists emergency medical services in these cases.
It's important that people understand, in the case of an overdose, that the Carbondale police aren't going there looking to get someone in trouble, but to help, he said.
The lieutenant doesn't want someone to avoid calling 911 for help for someone overdosing.
Wurtsmith believed that most police departments are on the same page, focusing their energy toward the people who are selling the drug.