Heroin returns with vengeance to East Iowa

22 overdoses reported in Cedar Rapids, 3 in Iowa City

Mexican brown heroin is the type that is most prevalent in Eastern Iowa. (Drug Enforcement Administration)
Mexican brown heroin is the type that is most prevalent in Eastern Iowa. (Drug Enforcement Administration)

Heroin is making a deadly comeback in Eastern Iowa.

Twenty-two people have died from heroin overdoses in the Cedar Rapids area within the last 18 to 22 months and three people have died in Johnson County so far this year. There also have been several other non-fatal overdoses in Cedar Rapids but they can’t be linked to heroin.

Scott Smith, Drug Enforcement Administration resident agent in charge, said heroin is being brought into the area from drug organizations in Chicago that can offer the cheaper, more potent alternative for the harder-to-obtain opiates like oxycodone or OxyContin.

Smith said heroin use is cyclical and increased use is being seen all over the Midwest and beyond.

According to the 2011 National Threat Assessment, an annual report compiled by the U.S. Justice Department, Linn and Scott counties are named as counties where heroin-related overdoses increased between 2008 and 2010.

On the national level, cocaine distributors switched to heroin because of a cocaine shortage that provided more heroin in new markets to new users, according to the threat assessment report.

“There was a surge five or six years ago for pharmaceuticals, then there was a crackdown, and heroin use increased because nobody could get OxyContin,” Smith said. “Meth is still the number one global problem. It will always be around.”

Smith said the street price is likely a driving force for the popularity of heroin.

Prescription painkillers go for about $1 per milligram, while $80 will get 10 bags of 0.5 grams of heroin, which is one dose that gives a longer lasting high than a painkiller. The cost per gram for heroin in Eastern Iowa ranges from $150 to $200.

The Iowa users, usually in their mid-20s, are mostly injecting and snorting Mexican brown heroin, the type of heroin being brought in from Chicago, Smith said. Interstates 80 and 380 make an easy transport route from Chicago to the metro areas targeted by most of the distributors — the Quad Cities, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Waterloo.

Smith said what’s most alarming is the purity level of the heroin coming in, which is “hovering around the 50 percent mark ... extremely high in my experience.” When it’s sold on the streets, it’s usually cut with other substances like starch or sugar so the purity level is difficult to detect for the user, he said.

“One of the unfortunate traits of heroin is the user quickly develops a physical tolerance to the substance, forcing them to constantly seek a new level for the once obtained high or euphoria,” Smith said.

“The cat and mouse game with the volatile, unpredictable purity levels of heroin play a significant role in the amount of overdoses our area is experiencing.”

Treatment options

Kelly Reitzler, director of adult residential services at Area Substance Abuse Council in Cedar Rapids, said overdoses also happen when the abusers try to quit for a while, and then decide to use “one more time” but they use the same amount as when they quit and their system can’t tolerate it.

Reitzler said the inpatient treatment center has consistently seen a slight increase in heroin abusers in the last several months. The users range in age from mid 20s to 30s.

Dave Barloon, a nurse practitioner with the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Chemical Dependency unit in Iowa City, said heroin addiction is difficult to treat because there’s no real treatment for the physical symptoms and there’s a lack of detox  facilities in the area. Opiate dependency isn’t a priority for a hospital to admit someone, he said

ASAC in Cedar Rapids and Mecca in Iowa City are the only two inpatient centers that will admit people going through withdrawal and then provide counseling or treatment. UI Hospitals is an outpatient program that provides treatment for all addictions and individual counseling.

Heroin death cases

Smith said investigations are ongoing and many cases are pending, so he couldn’t give details about the deaths.

Two cases have been made public through federal convictions of distributors but the information remains limited until the defendants are sentenced.

Samuel Ford, 35, of Cedar Rapids, was convicted by a jury in August for two counts of distributing of heroin, which led to a 29-year-old Cedar Rapids man’s death. Ford faces life in prison.

Patrick Toomey, 56, and Thomas Finley, 62, both of Iowa City, pleaded guilty in October to conspiring to distribute 100 grams or more of heroin, which caused a Solon man’s death March 17. They each face five to 40 years in federal prison.

Task force

Assistant U.S. Attorney Pete Deegan said “one death is too many” so the Northern District office is taking aggressive steps to combat the problem by sponsoring an Ad Hoc Heroin Overdose Task Force to investigate the influx of heroin and hopefully, prevent future deaths.The task force formed in May consists of officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration; Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation; Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Marion police departments; Linn and Johnson County sheriff’s offices; Department of Homeland Security; Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the 6th Judicial District Department of Correctional Services and other area law enforcement departments across Eastern Iowa.

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