– Graphic by Catherine Wong
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At its March 27 meeting, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted to join a lawsuit filed against pharmaceutical companies and the distributors of opioid medications who are accused of misleading the public about the danger of addiction to opioids.

The county joins hundreds of other litigants including the Yurok tribe, who have taken on pharmaceutical companies for the impacts opioid addiction has had on communities, including Humboldt County.

When restrictions were placed on the distribution of opioid medications, it left a hole, and according to local law enforcement officials that hole has been filled with heroin and methamphetamine.

At the March meeting county Drug Task Force Commander Lt. Bryan Quenell said that “the overwhelming number of people that I speak to that are addicted to heroin started on some form of prescription medication. Heroin is easier to get now than those prescription narcotics.”

Quenell said that since Jan. 1, task force agents have confiscated around 7 pounds of heroin and 12 pounds of methamphetamine, and arrested 72 people connected with narcotics investigations. In 2017, agents seized a total of just over 6.2 pounds of heroin. In 2015, they seized just under 6 pounds.

“Meth and heroin are the primary targets of the task force,” Quenell said Wednesday. “We are having success in disrupting some organizations and feel like we are making an impact in the community because the drugs aren’t there.”

According to the California Department of Public Health, Humboldt County has the state’s second highest opioid overdose rate, one that is five times the state average.

Quenell said Humboldt County is a heroin distribution center for the region and the drugs come in primarily through Mexico.

“The vast majority of narcotics come in over the southern border and then get broken down into smaller quantities for distribution and sales,” he said. “Humboldt County is a hub for southern Oregon and we have had reports of multiple kilos of heroin being broken down for sale.”

Quenell said that task force coordinates with federal agencies to target the high-level distributors instead of “playing whack-a-mole to take down low-level street dealers.”

A dealer doesn’t necessarily specialize on what drugs they will sell and Quenell said that many will “dabble in a little bit of everything, it depends on how the organization is structured.”

“They could have one guy directing the sales of both meth and heroin,” he said. “Our mission is to identify the mid-to-high level dealers within the county and disrupt and dismantle their operations.”

For a patrol officer on the street, drugs like heroin and methamphetamines have always posed a danger.

Eureka Police Department Capt. Patrick O’Neill said in an email that officers have seen an upswing in seizures and that “five years ago it was sporadic for our patrol officers to find a person in possession of multiple ounces of a controlled substance. Now it happens more frequently.”

O’Neill went on to say that officers still find a lot of prescription drugs on the street. “We have not really seen a rise in heroin possession in conjunction with a drop in illicit prescription possession. We are still seeing quite a bit of Suboxone, methadone, Oxycontin, oxycodone and Vicodin.”

O’Neill also said he believes there is “absolutely” a connection between property crime and illicit drug use.

“During our interviews of suspects arrested for property crimes from robbery to petty theft, the most common rationale offered by offenders to justify their crimes is feeding a drug habit,” he said.

There is another risk patrol officers face when dealing with illegal drugs and paraphernalia and that’s the danger of being stuck with a needle during the search of a suspect. Add to that the irrational behavior of someone under the influence, and an arrest can pose significant dangers.

“There are exposure risks to our officers due to injection being a very common means for the use of both these illicit drugs,” O’Neill said. “Our county also has a high population of those living with hepatitis C, so every search incident conducted by our officers is a chance they could be poked by a contaminated syringe.”

According to County Chief Probation Officer Bill Damiano, the availability of drugs makes it hard for users to kick the habit.

“Meth and heroin have always been fairly readily available,” he said in an email. “Any availability makes it hard for an addict to stay clean; they are addicted and their disease compels them to use, so when it’s in their face they will most likely use.”

Damiano said on average more than 80 percent of the adult cases his department handles have issues with substance abuse and he doubts that the opioid epidemic and an increase in the availability of methamphetamines and heroin have had much impact.

Proposition 47 reduced many drug and property crimes to misdemeanors and Damiano said that California has seen an overall drop in violent and property crimes since 2004, and that although in Humboldt County property crimes have risen since 2011 it is still lower per capita than it was in 2005.

Treatment programs have also been affected by changes in state law and Damiano said that since AB109 passed the number of beds available for treatment has increased even if the number of treatment programs has decreased.

“The Humboldt Recovery Center and Waterfront Recovery both expanded residential treatment slots and Crossroads increased capacity by changing from a 12- to 18-month program to a 90-day program which increased capacity by 400 percent.”

Damiano said it can be difficult for a recovering addict with a criminal record to re-acclimate to society, and that getting clean is just the first step.

“Once someone is able to get clean and sober we need to be able to help them learn how to interact with others in pro-social ways, to learn how to deal with normal or abnormal setbacks without resorting to using,” he said. “To stay clean and sober and crime-free they need opportunities to succeed and a little understanding, compassion and acceptance. Just like the rest of us.”

Dan Squier can be reached at 707-441-0528.

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