Homer has a heroin problem, and it is growing.
Similar to the fable of the blind men each touching different parts of an elephant and arguing over its identity, only communication within the community can make the problem fully apparent, say those who are working to find solutions to the problem.
Over the last three years, incidents have popped up in Homer that point to a growing trend, said Homer criminal defense lawyer Andy Haas.
“We’ve seen big distributors make their presence in the area,” Haas said. “We’ve seen lots of (overdoses) in the hospital. We’ve seen it in the school system. We’ve seen it in the younger population. … We frequently find it in people in their late-20s; that is perhaps the most frequent population group among heroin users.”
Working as a lawyer in Kenai, Soldotna and Nikiski, Haas saw heroin take hold of those communities over the last ten years. Symptoms of the epidemic manifest as property theft and assault related to heroin and meth, as well as possession and distribution charges, using up as much as 80 percent of the criminal count system resources, Haas said. Now, he is watching the same trends begin to play out in the Homer court system.
“I think it’s the most tragic thing that has happened here in a long time,” Hass said. “Someone out in the Russian community in Voznesenka told me that it’s easier for a kid to get heroin than a six pack of beer. When that happens, that’s just wrong.”
Homer has some unique factors that allow for heroin use to seep in easier than in other communities, said Ginny Espenshade, executive director of Kenai Peninsula Youth Court. Seasonal work where an individual makes their yearly wage over the summer, giving him or her with a significant amount of downtime in the off-season, leaves room for addiction out of boredom or frustration.
“Heroin fits well with that work hard and play hard attitude,” Espenshade said.
Homer’s relaxed attitude toward recreational drug use also leaves a fuzzy line concerning harder drugs like heroin, Espenshade said. A clear line needs to be drawn between types of substances.
“The worst thing we have against us is that Homer has a laissez faire attitude toward drug use,” Haas said. “People have to understand this is not pot, this is not a recreational drug, there’s nothing recreational about it.”
Many of the young adults struggling with heroin addiction grew up in the Homer community, Espenshade said. Homer’s addicts are not people who moved here and brought the problem with them. As an example, Espenshade found that at least 11 percent of her daughter’s former eighth grade class — adults who are now approximately 27 years old — have had some interaction through the legal system with heroin or meth. More importantly, addicts in Homer do not fall into one group of people. They are scattered across age, profession and socioeconomic class.
“It doesn’t just affect what we consider the at-risk young person or family. There’s no correlation to good or bad parenting,” Espenshade said.
The R.E.C. Room, where teens have started talking about it with Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic youth health educator Anna Meredith and peer coordinator Doug Koester, also feels the increase of heroin use. Until two years ago, Meredith heard very little about heroin use, she said. Recently, she and Koester called an emergency meeting with counselors and other community members involved with addiction resources to learn more about the issue.
“They’re pretty traumatized by it,” Meredith said. “And of course this is not all young people in Homer. The majority of young people are not around heroin, but there are populations and the populations who are around it are growing. … It’s in people’s faces a lot more because its readily available and affordable. It sucks.”
While heroin use appears to be most concentrated among the 20-something age group, the full range of heroin addiction in Homer starts around age 17 and goes up through people in their 50s, said Dr. Sarah Spencer of South Peninsula Hospital. Spencer specializes in addiction treatment and has worked in the Kenai Peninsula for the last two and a half years. Though opiate addiction is a national issue — with 2 million addicted to prescription painkillers and 500,000 addicted to heroin — the rates of addiction are higher than in the rest of the country, Spencer said.
As of 2012, Alaska’s heroin overdose death rate was over 50 percent higher than the United States’ national rate, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Opioid painkiller deaths dropped from 11.2 per 100,000 people to 7.3 per 100,000 people between 2009 and 2010 and have stayed relatively steady over the last five years. Meanwhile, heroin overdose deaths are steadily rising, starting at less than five deaths in 2009 and totaling 34 deaths in 2015.
As opioid painkillers increased in price and became more tightly regulated, cheap heroin became readily available, Spencer said. Many people who started with a painkiller addiction switched to heroin, while others became hooked on heroin through recreational drug use.
“It’s the same thing to your brain; it’s all opiates,” Spencer said. “They think they have it under control experimenting with it and it can become a very bad addiction really quickly.”
Users usually begin by smoking the drug, but then change over to intravenous use, commonly referred to as “shooting up,” when their tolerance increases. Heroin’s highly addictive nature means that a person can be addicted in as little as two or three weeks with frequent use, Spencer said.
South Peninsula Hospital documented 10 opioid — a class of drug that includes heroin or opiate painkiller — overdoses and 75 visits related to opioid addiction and abuse, according to Spencer. The Kenai Peninsula had nine heroin overdose deaths between 2011 and 2015.
“For every one person that shows up in the emergency room, there’s about four or five others in the community who are not seeking care,” Spencer said. “The people in the hospital are the tip of the iceberg.”
Statistically, only one in five people will seek help for their addiction. In the last six months, Spencer has seen dozens of people addicted to heroin looking for help to detox or for long-term management.
Homer Police Chief Mark Robl sees another cross-section of heroin addicts — those who are arrested. Arrests for heroin in Homer are either possession or dealing, Robl said. There have been no cases of manufacturing heroin in town.
“We’re doing what we can with the resources we have to aggressively pursue any leads that we get regarding dealers in Homer,” Robl said.
While the number of charges levied in 2015 for possession or sale of heroin remains under 10, the problem is bigger than the police department’s numbers, Robl said. Homer police have seen more addicts coming through the jail for other charges and witness those held in the jail for a few days going through withdrawals. More discarded needles than previous years have been found as well.
“What we see leads us to believe there is an increase in heroin use in the area. We’ve heard stories from parents and friends of users that have seen people develop addictions to heroin,” Robl said. “It’s fairly hard for us to gauge the exact magnitude of the drug problem in Homer. We deal with the ones who get arrested. We don’t see the ones that go home and deal with their problem behind closed doors.”