Heroin use has surged in the United States since 2002. With further escalation after a recent crackdown on prescription pills, police in Fairhope and Gulf Shores are seeing the national trend hit home with a recent spike in heroin arrests.
In August and September this year, Fairhope police arrested and charged several people with heroin possession. In May, Lagniappe reported on the arrest of a pair of doctors associated with Physician’s Pain Specialists of Alabama, which coincided with a Drug Enforcement Agency operation focused on “pill mills” in four states including Alabama.
“We believe some long-time prescription pain pill users developed a dependency on opiates from doctors,” Fairhope police Sgt Craig. Sawyer said last week. “Some of those people who can no longer get prescription opiates are now turning to illegal drugs.”
In Gulf Shores, Sgt. Jason Woodruff said five years ago Gulf Shores Police made about one heroin arrest per year. Now, the department makes one or two per month.
Woodruff said in each case, the amount of heroin confiscated during those arrests has not been large enough to point to trafficking, suggesting offenders possess the drug for personal use. The bar for charging a person with heroin trafficking is lower than for other drugs, Woodruff said, so the amounts found during recent arrests have been small.
“I have heard that it could be because some prescription drugs are either more expensive or harder to get than they used to be,” Woodruff said. “In my opinion, I think some often-abused prescription drugs are either off the market or they are priced so high that users can’t get them.”
Woodruff said the biggest problem drug in Gulf Shores remains methamphetamine. During a recent traffic stop, Gulf Shores officers found a large amount of methamphetamine and a small amount of heroin.
Baldwin County Drug Court Coordinator Raina Macks said in the last three to four years, heroin arrests have spiked and centered in Fairhope and Gulf Shores.
“At first we didn’t hear about any heroin arrests, but lately we’ve heard of about one a week,” Macks said. “Within our drug treatment programs in Mobile and Foley, we’ve also had an increase in intravenous heroin users.”
Macks said Baldwin Substance Abuse Services has had to ramp up testing for heroin because of the increase in arrests.
“For years we did not have to check for heroin abuse, but now it is something we have to look for all the time,” she said.
Findings in a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) seem to confirm local law enforcement suspicions.
According to the CDC, heroin-related overdose deaths quadrupled between 2002 and 2013, when 8,200 people died from the drug nationwide. At the same time, CDC figures also show heroin abuse increased in demographic groups with historically low use of the drug, such as women, the privately insured and people with higher incomes.
The CDC report found those who are addicted to prescription opioid painkillers like Oxycontin, morphine and Vicodin are 40 times more likely to abuse heroin than others. The report also says heroin is less expensive than those prescription drugs. Heroin is also an opioid, which is why prescription painkiller abusers often turn to it. The report also says 96 percent of heroin abusers also use other drugs.
Maj. Anthony Lowery from the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office said heroin use has been a growing problem in the county over the last few years. Lowery said the county usually lags behind national drug trends, and the same has happened with national heroin trends.
Lowery said it is a countywide problem and not isolated to one area or the other, but a significant amount of heroin arrests seem to come from the Eastern Shore and south ends of the county.
“Heroin used to be something we encountered on occasion, but recently it has become something we frequently deal with,” Lowery said. “And it is not just heroin use, but overdoses and addiction.”
The crackdown on prescription painkillers could have played a role in recent arrests, he said.
“I think it is partly due to that,” Lowery said. “Heroin is sometimes cheaper than prescription drugs, so that is a factor as well.”
Samantha Goodwin Rohe, 35, of Fairhope was arrested Sept. 9 on Greeno Road near McGowin Drive for possession of heroin and drug paraphernalia. According to the offense report released by Fairhope police, officers recovered a cotton ball that tested positive for heroin and a plastic spoon containing residue during the investigation. She was released into the custody of the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) on Sept. 11 before being released entirely on a $10,000 bond.
Wesley Craig Comalander II, of Daphne, was arrested Sept. 6 and charged with heroin possession, illegal possession of prescription drugs and possession of drug paraphernalia. The police offense report shows officers discovered cotton balls containing suspected heroin residue, a black case with syringes and a silver spoon, which is commonly used to “cook” powder heroin mixed with water for intravenous injection.
On Aug. 6, Antwan Jernell Thomas, 35, of Pensacola, was arrested and charged with possession of heroin and ecstasy and trafficking methamphetamine.
The spread of heroin use is not impacting every law enforcement agency in the county. Lt. Brian Gulsby said he has been with the Daphne Police Department for 18 years and could not recall anyone being arrested for heroin possession in the city during that time. That doesn’t mean the department hasn’t heard rumors about its use, though.
“Patrol has worked a few family disputes at local hotels where there was rumored heroin use, but to my knowledge we haven’t arrested anyone for that,” Gulsby said.
A Sept. 11 traffic stop on Interstate 65 in Mobile netted 154 grams of ecstasy as well as heroin. Two men, Byron Law and Ray Parker, were arrested and charged with drug trafficking. Mobile police estimated the street value of the drugs was approximately $31,000.