Roseburg sees upswing in heroin use

ROSEBURG — Shaun McMilian woke up one morning and realized his life didn't make sense.

He was sleeping in a squat house in Eugene with other drug addicts, struggling to find enough heroin to stop the sickness of withdrawal. He needed the drug to sleep, to wake, to live. Every waking moment was spent finding enough heroin to keep his body happy. Stealing, shoplifting, panhandling — none of it was beyond him, he said.

It was about 10 years ago that Roseburg resident McMilian started experimenting with heroin. Today, at 34, he is seven months sober and studying to be a drug counselor. But his downward spiral into addiction still haunts him today.

He was 24 or 25 when the drug started overtaking his life. He recalls making daily trips to Eugene to supply his habit. Today's local addicts don't have the same inconvenience — heroin has made its way to Douglas County.

Joe Garcia, Douglas County's Drug Court coordinator, said he "could see the writing on the wall" about three years ago. That's when he and his colleagues saw an "enormous" increase in the abuse of prescription medications by adolescents between 15 and 20.

"We are seeing that same population getting older... and seeing some of them make the transition to heroin," Garcia said.

The opiate-based prescriptions are becoming harder to find, Garcia said, which leads some to heroin. He said the drug has a similar, perhaps more intense, high.

Lt. Curt Strickland of the Douglas Interagency Narcotics Team also said he believes prescription medication is behind what he calls an obvious upswing of heroin use. Methadone and OxyContin abuse increased rapidly in the county in the last three years, he said.

"When people can't get prescriptions," Strickland said, "what they can get illegally with the same effect on the body is heroin."

Strickland and fellow investigator Clayton Ruble said the team has been working with local doctors to try and limit the amount of prescription medication that makes it onto the street.

The lower supply leads to higher prices, Ruble said, which makes pills more expensive than heroin on the street. Addicts may require up to $600 a day in pills, when $100 worth of heroin will have the same effects.

The shift to heroin is due also in part to the team's crackdown on methamphetamine, Strickland said.

"Part of it is that I think we have done a pretty good job making people aware of the dangers of meth," Strickland said. "(But) I liken it to a long, skinny balloon. You squeeze on one end so much the other end of the balloon gets larger."

With many methamphetamine labs being put out of business in the past few years, meth must now be transported to the county, Garcia said. And with the meth, dealers are bringing heroin.

Also alarming is the increase in county heroin addicts, law enforcement officials say. Strickland said Douglas County has always had a small group of hard-core heroin users. This increase, he said, has touched a much younger population, many of whom are very well educated.

Ellis Pool, executive director of the Harm Reduction Center in Roseburg, said many of the people coming to exchange needles at the center are between 14 and 25 years old. Pool said the center runs the exchange program in part as a means to speak to drug users, to urge them into counseling and most important, to combat the spread of infectious diseases through shared needles. Dianne Carter, the center's director of case management, estimates 50 to 60 different users exchange needles every week.

"I would say a combination of things (turn people to drug use)," Carter said. "Certainly the financial poverty that people find themselves under... general stress, it is another one of those escape mechanisms."

McMilian became hooked on heroin after he lost his friend, Jack, to an overdose of the drug. The two friends had joked about trying the drug when they were 19, after repeatedly watching one of their favorite movies called "Trainspotting." After a few years of jokes, casual encounters with heroin became a reality for McMilian.

At first it made him really sick, he said. Then Jack died.

"(It) baffles me still do this day," McMilian said about why he began to use. "I think I was curious to why he would lose his life over the stuff ... I did it every now and again, and before I knew it, I had a habit."

While still new at being clean and sober, McMilian said he is working to help out the users who are looking to quit. He hopes to one day be a drug counselor for adolescents, but he knows the age group doesn't have a high success rate for recovery.

"It seems like you have to get to a point where you are sick of it, and I think that takes time," McMilian said.

For him that time came as an epiphany when he realized "other people (were) not sick on a daily basis" and in need of heroin to get out of bed. He wasn't even getting high anymore, he said. The use was just about enough to keep withdrawal symptoms at bay.

"You have to play the tape through. First it is fun, then you are at a point that you are spending up to $300 a day not to be sick," McMilian said. "It was kind of like chasing your own tail constantly."

Ruble is familiar with the feeling after spending three years on the narcotics team. He said they still have as many problems with meth and marijuana as when he started, in addition to the past year's upswing in heroin problems. Still, when he is able to be a part of a big bust, such as last month's seizure of four pounds of heroin in Roseburg, it makes the hard work worthwhile.

"I don't think we are fighting a losing battle. It is a battle that might never be won, but we keep it from getting out of hand too much," Ruble said. "We are out there attacking it every day."

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