Heroin increasing its reach in small towns

SNOHOMISH — The drug counselor told the five addicts that the odds were stacked against them.

Only one of them likely would beat their addiction. The others would come back to rehab or return to drugs for good. One would probably end up in prison and one likely would die.

Randy Pierce pointed at his 17-year-old son. “You. You’re going to be the one who makes it,” the Snohomish man recalled saying at the family session at a Yakima rehabilitation center.

Corey Pierce had been caught with heroin. He was in deep. He’d started with alcohol and marijuana. He moved on to smoking OxyContin, a powerful prescription medication. When he couldn’t get that, he smoked heroin. Then he started using needles.

The small-town boy, who was most at home in mountains on a snowmobile or hunting with his dog, was addicted to what his family thought was a big-city drug.

Corey Pierce was clean for a year. But he wasn’t the one to make it. He was the one who died.

His little sister found him April 2 at their mom’s home. He fatally overdosed on heroin. He was just shy of his 19th birthday.

“If it can happen to my kid, it can happen to any kid. If it’s in Snohomish, it’s everywhere,” Randy Pierce said.

Authorities say there seeing some changes in the drug scene that could mean an even greater influx of heroin in small towns such as Snohomish.

“I think we could see an explosion in heroin usage,” said Lt. Mark Richardson with the Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force.

Snohomish Police Chief John Turner knows first hand that his town isn’t immune. His officers have been investigating a group of alleged heroin dealers in recent weeks. Detectives say they used a confidential informant to purchase heroin from a 20-year-old dealing downtown, just a mile from the high school. They arrested him on Friday. They arrested another Snohomish man, 25, Wednesday afternoon. Police anticipated making more arrests in the days to come.

“I’ve never seen heroin as prevalent as it is now,” said Turner, a veteran police chief.

He keeps a copy of Corey Pierce’s obituary taped to his office door. The teen’s death was an impetus for his department to take a harder look at heroin’s prevalence in town.

Increased heroin use is being attributed mainly to a surge in prescription drug abuse. People who become addicted to prescription drugs such as OxyContin, a powerful synthetic opiate, often turn to heroin as a substitute.

Heroin is cheaper and easier to get.

Police also recently were advised that Purdue, the manufacturer of OxyContin, has changed the drug’s formula, making it more difficult to grind up to smoke or snort. That could mean more addicts turning to heroin to get high, police said.

Heroin’s hardcore reputation also is softening with some young people.

This may be attributed to the smokeable heroin showing up in Snohomish County.

Detectives have been recovering what they are calling “gunpowder heroin.” Mexican black and brown tar heroin is being ground up with a common kitchen ingredient. The powder mixture is easy to make and can be smoked, rather than injected, Richardson said.

Detectives discovered gunpowder heroin inside the apartment of a suspected drug dealer who was beaten and shot to death Aug. 13 at a south Everett apartment, court papers said. Snohomish police seized the same kind of heroin during Friday’s arrest.

Smoking opium, long ago dubbed “chasing the dragon,” is far from new, but until about 10 months ago, police hadn’t seen a smokeable heroin in Snohomish County for decades.

“We think it’s so old it’s new again,” Richardson said. “It’s such a patient and persistent drug.”

People who are wary about shooting up might be more inclined to try smoking heroin, Richardson said. That could mean a rise in heroin use. Richardson said he suspects it’s more difficult to overdose on heroin when it’s smoked. That doesn’t necessarily translate into a drop in overdose rates.

“Eventually, they all go to injection,” said Dave Rodriguez, a director of the federally funded Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program in Seattle.

Injecting the drug directly into the bloodstream, the quickest way to get high, is responsible for most heroin overdose deaths, he said.

Unlike a manufactured prescription drug in which the dosage is known, the purity of heroin changes with each dealer, Rodriguez said. Every time someone shoots up, they run the risk of overdosing, Richardson said.

Bridgette Johns, 18, had quit using heroin and her tolerance for the drug likely dropped. Johns fatally overdosed in December after shooting up in Mountlake Terrace. Prosecutors in June charged a 26-year-old man with controlled substance homicide, alleging that he gave Johns the heroin that killed her and failed to summon medical attention when Johns complained of feeling ill.

Four months later, Corey Pierce was dead after shooting up.

Randy Pierce got the frantic call from his teenage daughter. She found her brother in his bedroom. He was cold and wasn’t breathing. Paramedics couldn’t revive him. About 400 people attended his funeral.

Randy Pierce is trying to understand why his son even tried heroin, let alone became an addict.

“He just didn’t seem like the kind of kid who would do heroin,” Randy Pierce said.

His son was a good kid who looked out for other people, the Snohomish man said. He could rebuild engines, operate an excavator and taught Bo, his Labrador, to hunt with him.

His son wanted to get better. He told his dad he felt good about being clean. He encouraged friends to get help, too.

Randy Pierce can’t help wonder what he should have done differently. He volunteered at his kids’ schools, coached their sports teams and spent long weekends camping, hiking and fishing with them.

“I’ll never get over this,” Randy Pierce said. “Drugs totally destroy families.”

Since his son’s death, Randy Pierce has gone to the high schools to talk about what happened to Corey. He encourages kids to look out for their classmates. Kids are more likely to listen to each other, he said.

“I tell them they’re not ratting anyone out. They might be saving their life,” Randy Pierce said.

Pierce also wants other parents to be better educated about heroin. He’s talking with Turner about having a town meeting to raise awareness among parents who might also think heroin is only a drug for rock stars and big city junkies.

Corey’s death touched the community, Turner said. The chief had people asking about heroin and the scope of the problem in town.

Like other small departments, it can be difficult to come up with the resources to launch an extensive investigation. It can be impossible to get to the major suppliers. Recent court decisions limiting searches of vehicles at the time of arrests also makes it difficult for small departments to catch drugs coming into their cities, Turner said.

They still have to try, the chief said.

“We’re drawing a line in the sand. We’re not going to sit still. We’re not professing to have an answer to the problem, but we need to make an impact now,” Snohomish detective Dave Fontenot said.

Randy Pierce also doesn’t claim to have the answers, but he is determined to try, too.

“I’m not quitting. It’s my community,” Pierce said. “I grew up here. It’s my town.”

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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For more information about young people and drug addiction, go to www.samafoundation.org.

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