Drug abuse sees shift

When an anonymous tip led police to a heroin stash in Ashland last week, it brought to the forefront the use of drugs in the city.

According to police and county officials who treat addicts, abuse of prescription drugs and the number of young addicts has increased throughout the Rogue Valley, while alcohol and marijuana remain by far the most common used and abused substances.

"This is like everywhere. We get a little bit of everything," said Police Chief Terry Holderness.

Prescription abuse

One class of drug that rarely shows up in police reports but is a growing problem locally and nationwide is prescription painkillers such as Vicodin or OxyContin, which, like heroin, are opiates.

Jim Shames, the medical director for Jackson and Josephine county health departments, has run the methadone clinic in Medford for 18 years. While the clinic long has treated heroin addicts, the type of patients and the drugs they are being treated for is dramatically different now from when Shames started, he said.

"When I first started working at the methadone clinics, it was middle-aged heroin addicts," Shames said. "Three-quarters of people that come to us for care now are abusing prescription drugs, and they tend to be young. It's really common now to see someone in their early 20s whose life has been ruined by their use of prescription painkillers."

About 230 people are enrolled at the clinic, compared to the 40 or 50 he saw 18 years ago, and two to five new patients are admitted every week from both counties, Shames said.

"It's a real issue in Ashland, as well. We've got kids at Ashland High School that are abusing pain pills," he said. "It often flies under the radar. Even kids themselves think, 'This is a prescription drug, it's got to be safe, my mom takes it, it's in the medicine cabinet.' It can lead to really tragic results."

Dr. Steven Wells, who treats heroin and prescription drug addicts at La Clinica in Phoenix, said he has treated both types of addicts from Ashland.

"The big concern in Ashland is pills," he said. "Yes, there is heroin, and I've taken care of addicts in Ashland, but pills have been the huge thing, particularly pills in really young people. It's pretty scary to put a needle in your arm, and so I think most people, particularly young people, start with pills."

Shames analyzed data from prescription drug overdoses in 2006 to get a better picture of who was affected in both counties. Of the 42 people who died, most were white men age 40-60, he said.

In the past 10 years nationally, abuse of prescription drugs has doubled for adults and tripled for teens, he said.

Keeping it real

City Councilor Eric Navickas said he is concerned that one discovery of heroin in Ashland could be used to perpetuate stereotypes and prejudice or create fear within the city.

"I think there are a lot of myths around opiates and who uses them and who abuses them," he said. "It's really important that we not stereotype or use the issue of heroin to crack down on undesirables."

Of the 195 total drug cases reported in Ashland last year, most were citations for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and about 12 were heroin-related, Holderness said.

When Holderness was an officer in Fontana, Calif., methamphetamine was more popular than heroin because it was cheaper and easier to get, so he wasn't expecting to encounter heroin when he moved to Ashland, he said.

"The fact that we saw any heroin here is a little surprising," he said. "We don't have large numbers of people on heroin. We have had several heroin overdoses in the last year. Not hundreds or dozens, but several."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .

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