Prescription drug abuse has been a steadily rising trend for Americans, especially in suburban areas. Now more and more addicts are discovering heroin as a cheaper and less-risky alternative to pills for getting high.
Sgt. Troy Burnett, of the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force, said heroin usage has exploded in the last five years.
The Ogden Police Department said its heroin-related arrests rose from one in 2003 to 79 in 2010.
More and more high school-age kids are discovering opiate-based pills such as Lortab or oxycodone, which are highly addictive, Burnett said.
They will carry that addiction with them into adulthood and then usually turn to heroin for the same type of high.
"Those pain pills are just a small dose of heroin," said Layton Police Detective Scott Byington.
Certain pills, morphine and heroin are synthesized from the same opium plant.
The people who turn to heroin discover that they can get more for less.
Burnett said the street market value of prescription drugs is normally $20 to $30 per pill. At the same time, the addict could get a balloon of heroin, which is the equivalent of several pills, for $10.
Along with high prices for pills, there's also a greater risk of getting caught. Forging prescriptions and "doctor shopping" are serious offenses that police actively investigate. However, finding a dealer at a shady park during the dark of night is considerably less risky, Burnett said.
Most of the addicts brought in by the strike force admit to getting their heroin from dealers who frequent parks in Salt Lake City, Burnett said.
He said people start out on pills because there's less stigma associated with taking something that's supposed to be medicine.
"It's socially acceptable to pop a pill but not to do heroin."
However, once people get hooked on opiates and realize they're spending most of their money to get their daily fix, they get over the stigma and turn to the cheaper high of heroin, Burnett said.
Byington is a member of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, and after talking with the other detectives from around the country, he said he has found that Utah has an especially high rate of prescription drug abuse.
"It's really common here. It seems to me this area has a pretty high problem with abuse of prescription drugs."
If the correlation between pills and heroin is accurate, then addiction to heroin may rise as rapidly as prescription drug abuse.
Law enforcement agencies across the country are finding the same pills-to-heroin trend.
In June, Joseph Rannazzisi, deputy administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, testified before Congress that prescription drug abuse was rapidly rising, behind only marijuana in illicit use, and that "some users of prescription opiates turn to heroin, a much-cheaper opiate that provides a similar 'high.'"
"This cycle has been confirmed by police agencies throughout the country, who are now reporting an increase in heroin use by teens and young adults who began their cycle of abuse with prescription opiates," Rannazzisi said.
Police in Baltimore, Chicago, Michigan, Washington state and the suburbs of Philadelphia have all reached the same conclusion.
Measures to reduce prescription drug abuse -- by adjusting the chemistry of such pills as oxycodone to make them less desirable or through increased penalties -- have pushed addicts to heroin.
"Sadly, prescription pills have become the staging area and connection between alcohol or marijuana and heroin and other drugs," said Joe Peters, senior executive deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania.
Burnett said the goal to reduce heroin addiction needs to start with battling prescription drug abuse.
"Doctors are really liberal with prescribing pain pills, and people take the pills when they're not in pain. It's a problem, and we need to fix the problem before making any progress."
The Washington Post contributed to this story.
Contact reporter Andreas Rivera at 801-625-4227 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @AndreasCRivera.