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Heroin problem in Puget Sound area getting younger

It's being called an epidemic with tragic consequences. An alarming number of teens and young adults in the Puget Sound area are going from prescription pain killers to heroin as their drug of choice. (AP Photo/file)

It’s being called an epidemic with tragic consequences.

An alarming number of teens and young adults in the Puget Sound area are going from prescription pain killers to heroin as their drug of choice.

“If we don’t get our hands and heads around how to stop this, we’re going to be losing kids left and right,” says Frank Couch, the Executive Director of the Science and Management of Addictions. “In fact, we are.”

Couch is also a counselor at SAMA and he says heroin use among suburban teens is rampant. “It’s no longer the person of color in the alley with a needle in his arm,” he says. “Now, it’s the kid with the Ray-Bans on, smoking heroin in his room with his friends.”

Heroin is not a new problem in Seattle. In 1998, the heroin death rate in the city soared to 144, prompting Rolling Stone magazine to label Seattle “the junkie town.”

Then, for about a decade, prescriptions for opiate-based painkillers skyrocketed and pain pills surpassed heroin as the leading cause of fatal overdoses. In the last couple of years, drug makers have reformulated the pills so they can’t be easily ground down to inject. In addition, stricter guidelines for doctors and increased awareness have made them harder to get. So now, heroin is making a comeback.

“The Oxy’s are quite expensive […] $90 a pill vs. $20 for a small bag of heroin,” Couch explains.

About 40 percent of heroin addicts at local needle exchanges say their addiction started with prescription painkillers. Not only is the heroin today cheaper, it’s more potent, and that means it’s more addictive. The resurgence of the drug is evidenced by the calls coming into the King County Recovery Helpline.

“The number one drug that people are calling about in King County and many other parts of the state is heroin, followed by prescription painkillers, then maybe marijuana. That’s new,” says Caleb Banta-Green, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

What’s also new, he says, is how young the addicts are when they go into heroin treatment for the first time.

“The biggest growth we’re seeing is between the 18 and 29 year olds. And that’s not just in King County, that’s pretty much across the state,” says Banta-Green. “That’s quite striking. The average age of people coming in for heroin treatment has dropped from 40 to 26, that’s an enormous change over a decade.”

Banta-Green says it’s alarming because it foreshadows what’s to come. Although the heroin overdose death rate today is about half of what it was in 1998, he says deaths are the ultimate “lagging indicator.”

While treatment is available, SAMA’s Director Frank Couch says there aren’t enough beds or facilities for the size of the problem. Rehab is also expensive, with in-patient treatment easily costing thousands of dollars a month.

If you don’t have insurance, he says your child has to “cross the line,” either by getting kicked out of school or committing a drug crime and face legal charges. “If that’s your access into treatment, then you’ve already slipped pretty far down the scale with your addiction,” he says.

There are other barriers. The age of consent for drug treatment in Washington is 13 years old and the state has no lock-down facilities. Once your kid hits that age, your child has to agree to go to treatment. At any point, they can decide they no longer want to continue getting help and check themselves out.

Couch says drug addiction is a chronic, progressive illness that only gets better with regular treatment. He says it needs to become more of a priority because early education about the dangers and early intervention are critical.

“We need to do a better job at how we treat and manage this addiction because it’s ruining lives of too many young people,” he says. “This is our future and we need to give them a better chance.”

For more information about SAMA and how to get help for a drug addiction visit Also visit for information on how to stop an opiate overdose and prevent an overdose death.

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