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Heroin: injecting crime into Kitsap

“Black tar” is the variety of heroin available in Washington, as shown here in a photo taken after a Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office bust.  - Courtesy of Kitsap County Sheriff
“Black tar” is the variety of heroin available in Washington, as shown here in a photo taken after a Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office bust.
— image credit: Courtesy of Kitsap County Sheriff's Office

When Chief Alan Townsend left his job at the Port Orchard Police Department in April to head the Poulsbo police force, he was fairly well apprised of the issues that Kitsap communities face.

“Being that I was in the county for the last 14 years, I was pretty knowledgeable about the crimes around the county,” he said. “The expectation was an assortment of property crimes and drug related crimes with the occasional violent crime; very similar to most small cities.”

The chief, however, was in for one shock.

“But the heroin thing has been a huge surprise,” Townsend said. “If you talk to most people who have been in law enforcement for the last 25 years, much like me, I think they would all be surprised by the increase in heroin, a drug that used to be a big-city problem and what we all considered to be a dirty drug.”

He added, “This increase is unprecedented in our career.”

Poulsbo isn’t alone. Kitsap County, like the rest of the state, has seen a dramatic rise in heroin use and crimes related to the drug.

“I was talking to the new chief in Port Orchard, who was my No. 2, a month or two ago, about what I’ve seen (in Poulsbo),” Townsend said. “I didn’t see it in Port Orchard. He said ‘We haven’t had anything like that.’ That very evening, they had their first overdose.”

As heroin has made its comeback over the past few years in the county, local law enforcement agencies and emergency services have encountered its side effects: crime, overdoses and more.

“It’s associated with any type of criminal activity because once people are under the influence, their inhibitions are lessened and they are more willing to engage in unlawful behavior,” said David Rodriguez, director of the Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, also known by its abbreviation, HIDTA.

The federal program is charged with assisting multiple agencies in combating illegal drug trafficking. Branches of HIDTA operate in areas known to be critical to drug trafficking.

“And it gets you into this cycle of visiting the emergency room for overdoses,” Rodriguez said.

Supporting a habit

“It’s no surprise heroin has made a comeback big time in our state,” Rodriguez said. “All the indicators are there, like heroin seizures are up.”

The numbers of seizures in the state have wavered over the past few years, but are considerable in size. In 2009, HIDTA initiatives helped intercept 55 kilograms of heroin; in 2010, 132 kilograms; in 2011, 82 kilograms; in 2012, 158 kilograms. That reflects annual seizures of 121 to 348 pounds of heroin.

HIDTA officials have noticed more local agencies becoming involved with heroin investigations and seizures. Local law enforcement took in 66 kilograms in 2010, 49 kilograms in 2011, and 40 kilograms in 2012.

Local enforcement includes agencies such as WestNET, a wing of the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. WestNET takes on larger cases involving mid- to high-level offenses; officers seized heroin and meth and made some arrests in September at a house in the 17000 block of Finley Road NE on the border of Suquamish and Poulsbo. The house allegedly was a site for meth distribution.

Since September 2010, the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office has responded to six calls relating to the intent to distribute heroin, 40 calls of delivery of heroin, and 75 calls involving the possession of the drug.

The sheriff’s numbers, however, do not reflect those of local authorities, such as cases encountered by Poulsbo or Port Orchard police. Another factor is the crime not listed. While heroin may not show up in all crimes across the county, its influence is still felt in many cases.

“About two-thirds of our crime has some drug nexus to it,” Townsend said. “It’s a major proportion of our crimes in Poulsbo, and I think this is true for other cities that have drugs involved.”

“People burglarize a home and are looking for things to sell to pay for drugs,” he said as an example. “The people we end up arresting are the people that are using the stuff.”

It’s all related, Townsend said.

“If we don’t deal with the drug problem, we won’t solve the burglary problem,” he said.

Beyond the crime, Townsend also said that his police department fields many calls about heroin paraphernalia.

“What we’ve seen most of is the injectable type (of heroin),” he said. “Not only with the people who overdose, but also citizen complaints about the trash.”

Townsend said needles have been found in Poulsbo’s public spaces.

The Mexican connection

HIDTA’s Northwest office approved its 2014 threat assessment for illegal drugs in June. The assessment places heroin high on its list of troublesome narcotics in the region. It also states that the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Seattle Field Division has placed heroin, along with methamphetamine, at the very top of its list of greatest drug threats in the Northwest.

But the drug running through Northwest veins has made a long trip to get there.

“There’s been a surge of heroin coming across the border,” Rodriguez said. “All of our heroin is from Mexico and it’s black tar heroin.”

Heroin is grown in Mexican poppy fields. It is then processed and prepared for distribution in America by what law enforcement refers to as “drug trafficking organizations,” such as cartels.

“The cartels control the flow of heroin across the border,” Rodriguez said. “They’ve had traditional distribution in Washington for a number of years. They are able to use their networks to try and give their customers what they are asking for, and initiate new users if possible.”

He added, “Making heroin available at a discounted level is one way to put it.”

Rodriguez said more poppy is being grown in Mexico than ever before and, in turn, more heroin has become available here.

Mexican-made heroin makes a journey along the West Coast, transported and provided through Mexican crime organizations.

“Heroin is also moved on foot and by couriers on buses,” HIDTA’s threat assessment states, noting that mail has also been used to transport the illegal drug.

“Washington-bound heroin most often enters the United States at the California-Mexico border. From there, the drugs follow the I-5 corridor through California and Oregon, then along US-97 into Yakima,” the threat assessment states. “Dealers then distribute the heroin in almost every direction in Washington.”

The Mexican crime groups wholesale the drug to local dealers who act as independent retailers. Retailers range from Mexican dealers -- the primary source in the state -- to local sellers, gangs and other criminal groups.

HIDTA noted that increasing numbers of traffickers from Ecuador, Honduras and El Salvador have also been discovered distributing heroin sourced from Mexico.

Rodriguez said heroin from Canada, however, rarely travels south.

“We see almost no heroin coming out of Canada,” he said. “Vancouver, Canada, is a white heroin city. It all comes from Asia.”

The line on the map reflects territories carved out by drug trafficking organizations.

“The pattern of abuse up in Canada was established by the fact they could get cheap heroin from Southeast Asia,” Rodriguez said. “Traditionally, it has been drug trafficking organizations coming from Mexico that established it here (in Washington).”

The West Coast, receives a variety of heroin known as “black tar.” The sticky tar-like heroin is the result of crude production methods. It comes in such a range of potencies that it is difficult to know exactly how effective it will be. This has led, at times, to overdoses and other medical complications.

Quality control

For the past 18 years, Monte Levine has run a volunteer needle exchange in Kitsap County. He has watched the evolving trends of needle use and the age range of users, trending to younger and younger users.

Levine has noticed that while use has dramatically risen, the purity of the black tar has dropped.

“What we are getting is of very low purity,” he said. “This stuff smells like vinegar, it’s very acidic.”

The acidity can wreak havoc on a user’s veins.

“We are seeing a lot of vein damage,” Levine said. “The stuff is so weak it takes a large amount to get high from it once you have a tolerance built up.”

The acidic smell is likely the result of the black tar process, Rodriguez said.

“They adulterate it with some chemicals that give it that smell,” Rodriguez said.

The poor quality can take a toll on users, such as overdoses, and more.

“We are seeing young people under the age of 25 that are losing their legs because of their femoral vein being damaged,” Levine said.

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