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Originally published Friday, March 22, 2013 at 12:03 PM

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DEA agent says heroin use on the rise in Northwest

Heroin use hitting Eastern Washington.

Columbian Basin Herald

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GRANT COUNTY — It’s called “chasing the dragon” and it’s become the No. 1 drug problem in Grant County.

In the last two years, heroin has quickly moved in and is affecting the entire county, according to two detectives on the Grant County Interagency Narcotics Enforcement Team (INET).

“We’ve seen people that have had great jobs in the community be completely destroyed by it,” said a INET detective who asked not to be named. “There’s really no cultural divide. We’ve had wealthy families where their children have been addicted.”

According to DEA Special Agent in Charge Matthew Barnes, the problem isn’t just in Grant County.

“Seizures of heroin are on the rise in the Pacific Northwest,” he stated. “Drug trafficking organizations have one priority: financial wealth through addiction. The DEA and our law-enforcement partners will continue to have an unwavering focus on keeping our communities safe.”

The DEA and other law enforcement dismantled a drug-trafficking organization moving methamphetamine and heroin from Mexico to Washington earlier this month. The bust prevented 4 million user doses of heroin from hitting the streets, according to Barnes.

The detectives said the cause of the problem is people getting hooked on opiate-based pills. When they could no longer get them, they made the jump to heroin to fill the void.

“A lot of these guys have to do it every day just to maintain,” a detective said. Users may go through 3 to 4 grams per day.

Medication manufacturers have changed the formula in pills so they cannot be smoked to get high. The next option for an addict is heroin, which fills their physical need and is much cheaper than prescription pills.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, heroin is the most rapidly acting of opiate drugs and is highly addictive. Users build up a tolerance over time and a physical dependence and addiction develops. Symptoms include drowsiness, respiratory depression, constricted pupils, nausea, dry mouth and difficulty moving arms and legs.

Heroin is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance from certain varieties of poppy plants. A detective said much of this is grown in Afghanistan and even Mexican cartels are now growing poppy.

Heroin is typically sold as a white or brownish powder, or as a black sticky substance known as “black tar.” INET detectives have found both the tar and powder, known as “gunpowder.”

“The gunpowder, if it’s cut, the dealers don’t care what they’re putting into it. The person buying it doesn’t know what they’re getting,” according to a detective.

They fear a bad batch of heroin brought into the county could cause a high number of overdoses or deaths.

Heroin doesn’t just cause problems for the user. The drug problem is fueling thefts and burglaries in the county and costing cities, farmers and homeowners money.

“A lot of the petty crimes are a result of whatever they can get their hands on to sell or trade for drugs,” according to a detective.

When a search results in the recovery of stolen property, drugs are almost always seized as well.

“We’re trying to push these people out of our county, out of our cities and they’re not welcome here,” a detective explained. “We try to make them as uncomfortable as we possibly can. They know INET is after them.”

Heroin comes to the county from larger cities in the state such as Seattle and Yakima, and the demand is high.

“It’s here and then it’s gone,” a detective said.

Most of the users INET is dealing with started with marijuana and began selling marijuana to feed their heroin habit. Marijuana is easy to sell and widely used, according to a detective.

INET has taken a proactive approach and is dedicated to eradicating the drug. Officers travel throughout the county and state, developing relationships with other law enforcement agencies.

“We have several ongoing investigations that are past 6 months in length, trying to wrap as many people as we can into it,” a detective commented. “They cost everybody money. It causes a lot of problems. The reality is we have a problem, we’re working very diligently to address it, enforce it and incarcerate the folks.”

They said the task force is the first line of defense for the community and without it, the upper level investigations would not be complete.

“It would be chaos” without the task force, according to a detective.

The detectives said public support is necessary to keep the task force running and educating the public on the dangers and impact of heroin is important.

Some warning signs of a heroin user include finding burnt spoons, straws and pieces of aluminum foil; hypodermic needles or crushed up pills. Most users will also keep a drug kit in a small bag. Users may also develop a raspy voice or sleep for most the day. Parents should also keep prescription medication from children by locking it up.

“They start taking those pills, it’s a road to destruction. The next best thing is taking heroin. It’s a downhill spiral from there,” a detective said.

INET is comprised of officers from the Grant County Sheriff’s Office, Moses Lake and Quincy police departments and the State Patrol.

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