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Far Northern California, already wrestling with meth, faces new drug scourge

Far Northern California, already wrestling with meth, faces new drug scourge

Picture of Joe Szydlowski

In far Northern California, which already is besieged by methamphetamine, law enforcement, doctors and community leaders have noticed another drug is snaking its way back into the black market’s customer base.

Read about the projects of other 2014 California Health Journalism Fellows.

Heroin, riding a crested wave of prescription drug abuse, is appearing more often in police reports, emergency room patients and the tales of those recovering from addiction.

Emergency room visits and hospitalizations are rising involving heroin in Shasta County, even as overall opioid admissions are declining.

It is no secret that addiction can ruin lives. But heroin’s chemical properties and its methods of use, e.g. injection, make it potentially more potent and more addictive than its prescription cousins. Society experiences its costs in many ways: drug treatment, incarceration, long term health issues from the drug itself (impurities in the powder) to diseases associated with its use (HIV, hepatitis C).

Few treatment options exist in Northern California. Shasta County offers only five private centers, all of which are faith based and absolutist.

Methadone and other harm-reduction strategies are rare – few doctors even discuss them. One doctor who tried to set up a clinic was essentially run out of town. Another doctor claims he has been harassed because of his work for harm reduction, though he currently faces charges of over-prescribing that allegedly led to the death of one patient.

Law enforcement, doctors and recovering addicts have given me various reasons for this increase in use (one common theme is those abusing opioid prescriptions switching to the cheaper, faster-acting heroin). But I want to nail down why this is happening. I want to show, in real terms, how this scourge damages the community and people. I plan to speak with current and recovering addicts, their families, health professionals and law enforcement. I intend to use statistics, such as the number of admissions, to portray how big a problem heroin is becoming.

I also want to offer readers solutions, both large and small, and each solution’s pros and cons.

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