Wyoming has long had issues with substance abuse. Alcoholism has always been a problem here, and in the 1990s and early 2000s methamphetamine took hold across the state. But one drug you didn’t hear much about was heroin. That is changing. Easy access to prescription pain pills in recent years has helped make heroin a small but growing problem in Wyoming.
John first tried pot as a middle schooler in Torrington. He started drinking pretty soon after, but he didn’t get into his drug of choice until high school. John--that’s not his real name, we are keeping him anonymous because he has felony drug warrants out for his arrest--got into opiates the same way many addicts do these days: through a doctor.
“It started off as codeine promethazine syrup, due to strep throat,” he told me. “I drank that full bottle and it was kind of on from there.”
This was in 2006, and back then it was pretty easy to get opiate-based pain medication, in Wyoming and across the country. John and his friends started raiding their parent’s prescriptions for powerful drugs like vicodin, percocet, and oxycodone. They started with just nights and weekends, but by his sophomore year John said he was popping pills on his lunch break from school.
Eventually he couldn’t find enough pills to feed his addiction, and that’s when a friend introduced John to heroin. Heroin and other opiates are some of the hardest drugs to kick: they teach your brain to need them, and if you try and stop you get brutally sick. John was nervous--he’d always thought of heroin as dirty. But by then he needed a opiate fix, and heroin was cheaper and easier to find than prescription pills. He smoked it the first time, and “Immediately all the numbness kicked in. All the emotional pain went away. And I just thought: how could this drug be dirty? It helps me out so much.”
Pretty soon heroin was John’s drug of choice, and that’s what led him to rehab. Last year he overdosed, his heart stopped and was declared legally dead before arriving here at Cheyenne’s Peak Wellness a few months ago.
Rom Reedy is a counselor at Peak Wellness. In the last six months Wyoming has seen 85 patients admitted to outpatient treatment for heroin use. That number was 105 in the year before that. And in 2011, there were only 58 heroin patients. Reedy says heroin use is up because recently the medical community has tightened their prescribing practices for prescription pain pills. “And I think that is what has pushed people to heroin. Because they have to find street ways to get it. Because doctors and pharmacies have become much more sensitive to the abuse potential.”
This new path from prescription drugs to heroin means that the people using heroin now aren’t like the junkies from the 1970s. Laramie Police Chief Dale Stalder has worked as a cop for thirty years, and he says when he started heroin was a drug reserved for the lowest rung of the social ladder. “Now you are seeing everything from the student population to people in their thirties and forties using heroin recreationally,” he said.
Stalder says the heroin available in the Rocky Mountain West is very pure right now. And it’s cheap: compared to expensive pain pills, but also to other street drugs like cocaine or meth. According to the Wyoming Drug Task Force, that’s because heroin dealers are almost always users selling just enough to support their own habit--which can make it hard for law enforcement to break into their circle.
“It’s a bit of a shift from other models,” Stalder said. “Certainly people who are dealing meth they are not meth users, and they are trying to make a profit. With heroin users its more circular: sale use, sale use.”
But while heroin use is a problem in Wyoming, it could be a lot worse.
“Some states are seeing upwards of 40, 50, 60 percent increase in their treatment admissions. While ours is pretty low in general” said Maggie Loghry with Wyoming’s Department of Substance Abuse.
Opiate users account for about 8% of residential treatment programs in Wyoming. In Colorado its about 23%, and in Utah its 24%. Still, the heroin users in Wyoming may soon put a strain on the state’s limited number of treatment beds. Public rehab money come from the state’s general fund, and Loughry says she hasn’t seen her budget increase in over a decade.
John is one of the lucky ones, he’ll continue his rehab program at Cheyenne Peak Wellness until May. Right now he’s sixty days clean, and says he has some powerful motivation to stay that way: his two young daughters. “That is what I have going for me right now. To be in my daughters lives, stay sober, and not die anymore.”