FORT WAYNE — A woman leaves a drug house and is caught with two bags of heroin worth a total of $1,600.
Police pull over a man driving a Buick and find a small grayish rock, less than a gram of heroin, in the trunk.
Narcotics officers search an alleged drug dealer and discover 6.8 grams of heroin stashed between his buttocks.
These arrests in January, along with some earlier record-setting busts, are evidence of what local authorities say is a rise in heroin use in the Fort Wayne area.
The increase has been tied to the growing abuse of prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Opana, which, like heroin, are opiates. Looking for a similar high that’s cheaper and sometimes more accessible, prescription drug users have turned toward heroin despite its stigma as a highly addictive street drug.
“When you’re desperate and an addict, you’ll do whatever it takes to the get the opiate – even take heroin,” said Steve Ribolla, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Fort Wayne.
With prescription drugs as a gateway, heroin has been making a resurgence around the country, Ribolla said. He started seeing heroin creep into this area about two years ago. Mexican cartels, adaptive to the demands of drug users, have been bringing heroin to Fort Wayne, often by way of Chicago, he said.
“The majority of the heroin that we get is Mexican black-tar heroin,” he said. “The quality is lower, the price is lower, but it still gets the job done.”
In 2011, a seizure of five pounds of black-tar heroin, a black, sticky version of the drug, led to federal charges against four people. “I think that was probably the largest heroin seizure in Fort Wayne in probably forever,” Ribolla said.
Fort Wayne police Capt. Kevin Hunter, who leads the vice and narcotics bureau, said the department’s heroin seizures have progressively increased in the last four years. Police brought in 43.2 grams in 2009; 96.4 grams in 2010; 108.1 grams in 2011; and 123.9 grams in 2012.
Hunter said the demand for heroin has grown and that users now have easier access to it. He agreed that for some addicts, the path to heroin has been through prescription opiates.
“When those become harder to obtain, heroin is an easy alternative,” he said.
Gaining a foothold in the heroin market to make arrests, Hunter said, has been a challenge.
“The issue with heroin is it’s a pretty closed society,” he said. “A heroin dealer doesn’t just sell to anybody.”
Heroin dealers sell to people they know, and because users fear losing their supply line, they are less inclined to help bust their dealers, he said.
Outside Fort Wayne, heroin has been found in rural areas better known for meth labs. In November, Warsaw police and the Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Department made what authorities described as possibly the largest heroin seizure in county history. At a mobile home south of Leesburg, officers found more than 100 small bags of heroin, each weighing one-eighth to one-fourth of a gram, police said. Six people were arrested.
Jerri Lerch, executive director of the Allen County Drug & Alcohol Consortium, regularly meets with drug treatment specialists and law enforcement officials. She said prescription drugs remain a larger issue than heroin, but reports suggest that heroin trafficking, use and addiction are increasing, notably among teens.
“Heroin is now reaching into younger and younger ranks, so the heroin problem is going to get exponential because it’s starting so much earlier,” she said, noting that only a “very small percentage of youth” use heroin.
The fast-acting drug, which offers a euphoric high, can be snorted, smoked or injected. Because heroin is often laced with other drugs or substances, users don’t know its real strength, leaving them at risk for overdoses, according to the DEA.
Heroin’s rise in Allen County has not spurred an up-tick in fatal overdoses, said Patt Kite, a spokeswoman for the county coroner’s office. She estimated her office handles one fatal heroin overdose per year.
Likewise, emergency rooms in the Lutheran Health Network have not seen more patients needing care because of heroin use. However, the number of patients testing positive for opiates, not necessarily heroin, jumped 25 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to Lutheran spokesman Geoff Thomas.
While lacking statistics, emergency departments in the Parkview Health system have experienced an increase in non-fatal heroin overdoses in the past six weeks, Parkview spokesman Eric Clabaugh said. Positive test results for opiates, again, not necessarily heroin, have also risen in recent months, he said.
Parkview Behavioral Health has not had a spike in patients wanting treatment for heroin use, but that could change.
“When availability runs low in the area we may see more people seeking help because they are in withdrawal,” Clabaugh said in an email.
The numbers from local hospitals are inconclusive, but statewide growth in heroin use from 2001 to 2010 was illustrated in a study done at the Fairbanks School of Public Health at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.
Eric Wright, a professor in charge of the study, said data collected through surveys of patients at treatment centers showed a clear link between the rise in the use of prescription drugs and that of heroin.