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Nation & World

Heroin taking oxy’s place for more addicts

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Florida’s war on pill mills is making an impact on prescription drug abuse, but there’s a troubling byproduct: a surge in the number of people now hooked on heroin.

With crackdowns focusing on siphoning off supply rather than treating addiction, people are finding that heroin, which yields a high similar to the widely abused oxycodone, is a readily accessible substitute.

“We’ve got to address treatment, or we’re not going to end the problem, we’re just going to change the drug,” said Jim Hall, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Substance Abuse at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Fla. “If you asked me in a word what’s new (in drug trends), I’d say heroin.”

Based on projections from the first half of 2012, Broward County addiction treatment centers saw an 87 percent spike in admissions among addicts using heroin as their drug of choice — to 316 from 169 the year before, according to state Department of Children and Family statistics.

Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties also experienced heroin treatment increases, though at smaller levels. Palm Beach County, for example, saw its heroin treatment admissions climb from 170 in 2011 to 198 in 2012, a 16.5 percent increase, said DCF spokeswoman Paige Patterson-Hughes. Experts can’t explain the discrepancy between counties.

“What’s happening is that heroin has become vogue again,” said Ben Brafman, founder and CEO of Destination Hope, a substance abuse treatment center in Fort Lauderdale. “It’s so available. Any kid can get it off the street.”

And it’s relatively cheap, especially now that Mexican drug cartels reportedly are competing with Colombians in feeding the South Florida heroin market with what law enforcement officials say is a purer strain.

Brafman said heroin can be had for as little as $10 for a dime bag, which can yield a two- to four-hour high. A single 30-milligram pill of oxycodone is going for $30 to $80, Hall said. Just two years ago, oxy pills could be found for $8 each.

The trend is neither an anomaly nor specific to South Florida, but rather a widespread national reality that law enforcement officers and drug control experts saw coming as early as 2011, when Florida and other states began busting up pill mills in earnest.

“Once all the pill mills started shutting down, people like me just switched to something easier and cheaper to get, and that’s heroin,” said Sean, 32, who is in treatment at Destination Hope and spoke on condition he be identified only by first name. “It’s a supply and demand thing.”

Like most opioid addicts, Sean got hooked on oxycodone after being prescribed the drug for a knee injury he sustained on a construction job. He eventually turned to heroin, he said, when authorities near his Baltimore home started getting tough on over-prescribing doctors and oxycodone suddenly became scarce.

Sean moved to South Florida in August to enter a Wellington halfway house.

“I could score heroin in five minutes, while it would take me all day to find oxycodone,” Sean said, of Maryland’s heroin market.

The same is true of South Florida, Brafman said, where upscale suburban kids have been known to barter their clothes and sneakers to score heroin.

“Many of our clients are telling us that they’re going to the purest form of heroin, and they’re shooting it rather than snorting it,” Brafman said, adding that Destination Hope has doubled its treatment beds, from 30 to 60, in the past 14 months, much of it to treat new heroin addicts.

In 2011, 60 percent of Destination Hope’s clients were addicted to opioids such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and heroin. That number grew by 25 percent in 2012, largely because of increased heroin use, Brafman said.

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