Opiate-related deaths higher per capita on Peninsula than statewide

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

Deaths from overdosing on heroin and opiate-related prescription drugs in Clallam and Jefferson counties have been proportionally higher, measured per 100,000 people, than statewide figures for the past six years, according to data compiled in a new report released by the University of Washington.

Clallam County ranks third, behind Cowlitz and Pend Oreille counties, in the number of opiate-related overdose deaths per 100,000 people between 2009 and 2011, according to the report, while Jefferson County ranks 17th.

The report released last week also shows that law enforcement agencies in Clallam County have collected as evidence more than twice the amount of heroin per 100,000 people than the statewide average for most of the past 10 years.

“The North Olympic Peninsula is definitely being hit by heroin,” said Caleb Banta-Green, the research scientist with UW’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute who compiled the report.

Banta-Green collected information from treatment programs, overdose-related death records and law enforcement sources to pull out statewide trends on deaths related to heroin and opiate prescription drugs, as well as the amount of these drugs turning up in the hands of police.

Banta-Green said he set out on this research project after hearing from sources in the health profession statewide that heroin has become more prevalent in the past couple of years.

“My prompting was not just to understand but to get counties their own data,” he said.

In Clallam County, the number of opiate-related deaths, which include both heroin and prescribed opiate medication, averaged 17 between 2000 and 2002, or 9.9 deaths per 100,000 people, according to data compiled in the report, almost twice the state figure per 100,000 people for those two years.

The number of such deaths peaked in Clallam County between 2006 and 2008 at 43, or 21.9 per 100,000 people, and dipped to 30, or 15.3 per 100,000, between 2009 and 2011, just more than twice the state average per 100,000 people for that same time period.

Statewide, there were 5.1 opiate-related deaths between 2000 and 2002, and 8.7 deaths per 100,000 between 2009 and 2011.

“It’s a trend that has been going on really for the last decade in Clallam County,” said Dr. Tom Locke, the chief medical officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties.

“The fatal overdose rate has been higher than the state average for most of the last year,” he said.

Jefferson County saw 10 opiate-related deaths from 2006 to 2008 and from 2009 to 2011, which represented 15.8 and 9.4 deaths per 100,000 people, respectively.

The data showed one opiate-related death in Jefferson County between 2000 and 2002.

For opiate-related deaths per 100,000 people between 2009 and 2011, Jefferson County ranks behind Cowlitz, Pend Oreille, Clallam, Skamania, Snohomish, Klickitat, Grays Harbor, Spokane, Skagit, Chelan, Lewis, Asotin, Stevens, Okanogan, Mason and Whatcom counties, from highest to lowest.

“Generally, the overdose rate correlates with the amount of [heroin] in the community,” Locke said.

Public health officials from both counties suspect there has been an uptick in heroin use because area doctors and hospitals are pulling back from prescribing opiate-based painkillers, such as Vicodin, which can be addictive.

Law enforcement agencies from both Clallam and Jefferson counties collected more pieces of evidence that tested positive for heroin per 100,000 people than the statewide average between 2011 and 2012, with Clallam County producing just about twice the state figure, according to data in the report.

In Clallam County, the average rate per 100,000 people of pieces of evidence that tested positive as heroin was 26 between 2001 and 2002 and 68.9 between 2011 and 2012.

In Jefferson County, the average rate was 1.9 between 2001 and 2002 and 38.5 between 2011 and 2012.

The statewide average per 100,000 people between 2001 and 2002 was 14.5, according to the report, and 34.3 between 2011 and 2012.

Jason Viada, detective sergeant with the Port Angeles Police Department and supervisor for the Olympic Peninsula Narcotics Enforcement Team, or OPNET, said OPNET detectives have seen a steady increase in the prevalence of heroin over the past two years in Clallam County, while methamphetamine still seems to be the illegal drug of choice in Jefferson County.

“Statistically, we encounter methamphetamines in Jefferson County far more frequently than any other drug,” Viada said.

However, he said investigating and apprehending heroin dealers in Clallam and Jefferson counties has been a top priority of OPNET detectives over the two years he has worked with the team, which has members from law enforcement agencies throughout the North Olympic Peninsula.

“So methamphetamine cases are still the biggest majority of our cases, but if I had the opportunity to choose priorities, I’m going to choose heroin,” Viada said.

Banta-Green said a law enforcement focus on getting heroin off the streets is just one piece of a solution local jurisdictions need to develop if they want to reduce the damage the drug is doing to their communities

“The actions that need to get taken are at the county level,” Banta-Green said.

Locke said he plans to continue to work with other Clallam County health officials this summer and fall to develop a county community health improvement plan, a main focus of which Locke expects to be the heroin issue.

“What should be done, what can be done, and who will be responsible for it,” said Iva Burks, director of the Clallam County health and human services department.

“Before the end of the year, we hope to have an answer for that [through the health improvement plan].”

Jean Baldwin, director of Jefferson County Public Health, said staff members have just begun talking about developing a community health improvement plan, though multiple health assessments for the county have been completed in recent years.

In addition to gathering data on the issue, both county public health departments run drug treatment clinics and syringe exchange programs, the main focus of the latter being to provide county residents who use intravenous drugs, such as heroin, with an anonymous supply of clean needles, said Lisa McKenzie, registered nurse and communicable disease program coordinator for Jefferson County Public Health.

Ultimately, though, health officials from both counties agree education on the dangers of heroin and opiate abuse is the best way to begin to combat the problem.

“[To make sure] people really understand this isn’t about an evening; it’s about a lifetime,” Baldwin said.

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Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at jschwartz@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: June 15. 2013 5:47PM
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