A hidden epidemic


America is in the grips of a drug epidemic, and no community is immune. The abuse of opioid painkillers, which can lead to heroin use, is to blame.

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control are hardly encouraging. Overdose deaths nationwide tripled between 1999 and 2014; in 2014, 61 percent of more than 47,000 such deaths involved an opioid. And the numbers aren’t improving. From 2014 to 2015, opioid-caused deaths increased more than 70 percent, while deaths from heroin increased 20 percent.

An addict burns heroin in a spoon. The narcotic can be smoked, sniffed, or dissolved in water and then heated and injected, producing sensations of warmth, calmness and drowsiness at a price cheaper than prescription painkillers.
Universal Images Group N.A. LLC / Alamy Stock Photo

It would be easy to get a misleading picture here, of heroin use raging in cities while painkiller abuse runs rampant in Appalachia, as seen in film and television. But the West is caught up in the epidemic as well. Of the 10 states with the most overdose deaths in 2015, the latest statistics available, two are in the West: New Mexico and Utah. Meanwhile, in Alaska, overdose deaths spiked 16 percent between 2014 and 2015. Nevada saw a nearly identical increase in that time.

For this issue’s cover story, Assistant Editor Paige Blankenbuehler spent nearly a year reporting on how this epidemic has affected one rural town in the West, Craig, Colorado. She uncovered a community battling an epidemic that started when a so-called “pill mill” opened there in 2006 and encouraged the mismanagement of pain. Stronger laws for monitoring and crackdowns led to the closure of the facility in 2012, but didn’t solve the problem. Craig was already grappling with painkillers and methamphetamines. Now, it has heroin, too.

Managing editor Brian Calvert
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Craig, a small coal town on the steppes of northwest Colorado, is struggling in part because of its rural nature. Local law enforcement is ill-equipped to deal with the problem, and few support facilities exist. And because there is not a steady supply of any particular drug, addicts have begun mixing and misusing any drugs they can find. High school students start by stealing the drugs of their parents, and police report breaking up “Skittles parties,” where all manner of pills are plopped into a bowl for consumption.

There are reasons for hope, however. The West has the lowest number of deaths per 100,000 people in the U.S., according to 2015 CDC data, and the region saw an overall drop of 2.6 percent in the overdose death rate between 2014 and 2015. New Mexico and Utah are slowly getting a handle on their problems. But the battle is far from over, and the front lines are in places like Craig. We can’t turn the tide unless we understand the nature of the epidemic. In this issue, we have sought to do that. It is a long story, and a heartbreaking one, but we believe it is important — and well worth your time.

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