Northwest Heroin Habit

Lisa Grenier extended her arms, palms up, to reveal deep track marks, the signature of heroin use.

"This is what it does to you," she said, sobbing. "It's the worst thing that you can ever, ever do. Don't do it. Don't even try it, not even once."

Now 42, Grenier is a 20-year addict. She is also one of approximately 15,000 to 20,000 heroin users in Seattle and surrounding King County, where a new federal report says overdose deaths have increased 134 percent in 10 years.

Rebecca Marshall of CBS affiliate KXL-AM in Portland reports a similar increase was seen there and in surrounding Multnomah County, Ore., where nearly as many men ages 25-54 now die from heroin than cancer or heart disease, according to the study published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Other studies have shown heroin overdoses increasing in most U.S. cities, but not so dramatically.

"It's a very serious problem, and one that we're addressing very aggressively," said Dr. Alonzo Plough, director of the Seattle-King County Health Department.

King County recently expanded its methadone treatment program, which allows addicts to function normally without agonizing heroin withdrawal.

Yet the program still has a waiting list of 600 names, Plough said. Grenier said she has been waiting for more than a year for treatment.

"It shouldn't take that long to get somebody on. It shouldn't, because then people go out and start stealing and whatever else they need to do" to pay for a fix, she said at the downtown Street Outreach Services, a drop-in center for injection drug users.

"We've got people who come in every single day asking where they are on the list. These are people who are desperate," said Kris Nyrop, executive director at the center, where about two dozen men and women sipped coffee and watched television Thursday. At least a dozen more stood outside.

According to experts and recovered addicts, Seattle and Portland have both struggled to supply resources to treat addicts who are most seriously ill.

Both cities are on the Interstate 5 corridor, which runs from Mexico to Canada. That, coupled with their role as international ports, makes the cities convenient for smugglers selling "black tar" heroin from Mexico and South America, said Capt. James Ferraris of the Portland police drug and vice division.

"Heroin is much more available now than it ever has been in the past, and the younger crowd is breaking into heroin use in particular," he said.

Chris Harvey, a recovered addict and counselor from Portland, said many users aren't as cautious about the more potent heroin.

"If you know a hard-core addict and somebody down the street just bought some dope and overdosed and died, the first thing this guy's gonna say is, 'Where did he get that? I want some of that,"' Harvey said. "That's the insanity of drugs."

Heroin doses start at about $20.

"There's needs to be a choice of treatments. It's not just about methadone," said Ed Blackburn, Director of Chemical Dependencies at Central City Concern in Portland. "I support methadone when it's appropriate, but it's not appropriate for everybody."

Blackburn said that recovering addicts need alcohol- and drug-free housing.

"We see over 2,000 people a year, and with that type of low income housing, 76% of our clients will succeed, completing a very rigorous six month program. Without it, only 20% succeed. These are low income people, chronic addicts," said Blackburn.

"My other concern is that we seem to be drifting toward a pharmaceutical model of treatment. We need to understand that this is also a social disease and what is critical is people having relationships that are supportive of recovery--that means they need to involved with other addicts in recovery who can help support their transition from addiction to sobriety."

"This means investment in supportive housing, peer support, employment programs. We need to understand that simply providing a pharmaceutical or twice-a-month counseling sessions is not enough."

"It is really the therapeutic relations that makes the difference and that happens between peers who are in recovery and intensive relationships with professional counselors," explained Blackburn

Dr. Gary Oxman, director of the Multnomah County health department, said price, availability and a glamorization of heroin in movies and music have contributed to the rapid growth in use.

In Seattle, Nyrop said the city's reputation as a heroin hotspot was established during its "grunge rock" heyday of the mid-1990s. It was magnified by the 1994 suicide of Kurt Cobain, the lead singer for the group Nirvana who struggled with heroin addiction. Three months later, Kristen Pfaff, the bassist in the band of Cobain's widow, Courtney Love, was found dead of an overdose.

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