Who is using heroin in Colorado?

State health and law enforcement agencies have a clearer picture than ever before of who is using heroin in Colorado and how users ended up addicted.

The Heroin Response Work Group, made up of about two dozen state and other organizations from public health, treatment, drug abuse prevention and law enforcement, released findings Thursday from an ambitious study of heroin use impacts and user demographics across the state. It spanned four years from 2011 to 2015.  Members of the group say the report, Heroin in Colorado, is the most comprehensive compilation to date of data on who is using heroin in Colorado. Armed with these findings, the group plans next to figure out where gaps in its understanding of the problem exist and then to mobilize its members behind a plan of attack on the heroin epidemic. That plan would prioritize law enforcement-led referrals to treatment over criminal punishment.  The group did not provide a specific timeline for the follow-up phases of its plan.

According to the report, the number of Coloradans in treatment for heroin addiction increased 128 percent from 2011 to 2015; emergency medical services treatment of heroin overdose more than tripled in the same timeframe; incidence of heroin seizures by law enforcement increased more than 20-fold from 20 incidents in 2011 to 427 in 2015; and heroin overdose deaths doubled from 79 in 2011 to 160 in 2015.

Who Uses Heroin

According to the data gathered, Colorado’s heroin users are mostly male by about a 60-40 split between genders, but the share of women heroin users is growing. Heroin addiction in Colorado spanned races fairly evenly. A majority are, however, under age 34 and about one-third of users are between ages 18 and 24. From 2011 to 2015, the average heroin user in Colorado became younger. The highest rate of heroin overdose in Colorado was found in Pueblo County.

The report included a voluntary survey of methadone clinic clients in the Denver-metro area that dove deeper into users’ histories. About 70 percent of those respondents said they came to heroin by way of a pill bottle. Most said they had been prescribed opioid painkillers or used a friend’s or family member’s leftover prescription opioids. They then became addicted and later found themselves turning to heroin because it was cheaper, easier to get, or both. Nationwide, about 80 percent of heroin users say they first abused opioid pain-killers, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. (NIDA also reports that the vast majority of people who misuse prescription painkillers do not go on to use heroin.)

Looking Ahead

At a press conference for the report’s release Thursday, Tom Gorman, a longtime law enforcement officer who directs the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force, said he was optimistic about Colorado’s efforts to reel in the crisis.

“Treatment, recovery, law enforcement and prevention are coming together to actively address this problem in a way that I’ve never—in my long, long, long career in drug policy—have I ever seen a statewide coalition form like this,” Gorman said.  “I’m excited about it … We have got to put our [agencies’] differences behind us and come together.”

In the past, Gorman said, treatment and law enforcement agencies haven’t worked together when it comes to heroin.

“We empathize with victims [of addict-caused crime], they [treatment agencies] empathize with the user. And I understand that, because their success rate is based on ‘Can I get this person over heroin?’” Gorman said. “Our success rate is based on ‘Can we reduce crime?’ If the person’s committing crime, then we put ‘em in jail. But, if we treat ‘em and get ‘em off drugs, then we reduce crime [in the long run], and it’s a win-win for both of us.”

Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer Larry Wolk said during the press conference that the work group is bracing itself for an uphill battle with insufficient funds.

The money available to combat the problem “is still far short of what we need, and even nationally what’s needed, to address what we consider an epidemic,” he said.

Photo by Mr. Theklan via Flickr: Creative Commons