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.

49-3-cover-jpg
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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...