A spike in the number of heroin cases and overdoses across the state has some authorities fearing the opiate could overtake methamphetamine as the most pressing drug threat in some parts of Alabama by 2017.
Those concerns are quantified in a 2015 threat assessment compiling statistics on drug investigations and arrests from areas the federal government has identified as High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA).
The Gulf Coast HIDTA includes Mobile as well as coastal areas in Mississippi and Louisiana where drug trafficking operations are known to operate on waterways, roadways and by rail.
Of drug-related cases reported in the area in 2015, 35 percent involved methamphetamine, 31 percent involved heroin, 13 percent involved cocaine and 9 percent involved prescription drugs.
Lt. Rassie Smith works in the narcotics department of the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office, and while he said there has been an increase in heroin activity throughout the state, the number of cases in this area is far less than those reported in northern Alabama.
“Is it problem? Yes. In Birmingham and in Jefferson County specifically, it’s a big problem,” Smith told Lagniappe last week. “It just hasn’t made it down to the coastal areas of the state, yet.”
Smith wasn’t exaggerating, either. Stats from the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office show drug overdoses related to heroin, fentanyl or a combination of both were blamed for more than 100 deaths in the first six months of 2016 alone.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s increasingly been mixed with heroin in cases throughout the country. Because it’s estimated to have a stronger potency than heroin and morphine, authorities claim fentanyl has made a dangerous situation even worse.
“A lot of these dealers are taking heroin and cutting it with fentanyl, which can be very dangerous,” Smith said. “Law enforcement in the Birmingham area has seen that problem, and it’s something we anticipate seeing here in the future. We just haven’t seen arrest numbers that high.”At this end of the state, though, Smith said MCSO has only recorded 10 arrests related to heroin possession and trafficking in all of 2016 to date. Most of those, he said, were for smaller quantities of “black tar” and “powder” heroin that have typically come westward from Interstate 10.
“It’s not produced like meth or marijuana that’s grown locally,” Smith said. “Most heroin we’re seeing is produced in South America or Mexico and then being smuggled into our area through the interstate system.”
In the 2015 HIDTA threat assessment, New Orleans is identified as having “a significant problem” with heroin, which along with Baton Rouge makes it somewhat of an anomaly in the Gulf Coast HIDTA. However, the 2015 stats do show “heroin availability increasing within the region overall.”
According to Smith, methamphetamine still has few competitors when it comes to the drugs associated with violent crimes in this area.
In August alone, authorities seized close to 17 ounces of crystal meth in the city of Mobile. Mass murder suspect Derrick Dearman also told authorities and reporters he used meth intravenously before killing five adults and an unborn child in Citronelle on Aug. 20 and again before turning himself into authorities in Mississippi.
In the heart of the Port City, heroin still isn’t the biggest drug threat facing the Mobile Police Department, though Assistant Chief Lawrence Battiste said there has been an increase in the number of heroin cases over the past year.
Based on data provided by Battiste, MPD officers have recovered close to 400 grams (14 ounces) of heroin since the summer of 2015. However, the largest heroin bust in the past two years was conducted by a joint task force of city, county and federal authorities.
When the Mobile County Street Enforcement Narcotics Team and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives raided a home in Chickasaw in October 2015, police recovered 12 pounds of methamphetamine and 1.2 pounds of heroin valued at more than $700,000.
The raid followed a four-month investigation that led police to 40-year-old John Michael Scruggs who, according to police, was a “high-level lieutenant” in a drug trafficking organization operating in Alabama.
The second-largest recent bust came last March, though only 30 grams were recovered. Since then, though, Battiste said none of MPD’s investigations have led to any trace of heroin.
“It’s still not primarily the drug of choice in this area,” he said. “Nationally and statewide, there’s an increase of heroin use, and of course, that’s driven by the fact that the cost of heroin is significantly lower compared to the cost of controlled prescription drugs.”
According to Battiste, users can get the same high of a $120-a-day prescription pill habit by spending just $30 on heroin.
Battiste did say the department experienced a notable increase in the number of heroin cases it was investigating after federal authorities shut down Physician’s Pain Specialists of Alabama — a pain clinic formerly owned and operated by physicians John Patrick Couch and Xiulu Ruan.
The doctors were arrested in May 2015 after authorities alleged they’d written 285,000 prescriptions for highly addictive and widely abused pain medications over four-year period. They are currently awaiting trial on those actuations and on federal fraud and racketeering charges.