Methamphetamines have been the nonprescription drug of choice for the Top of Utah going on a decade now, but heroin use is rapidly rising, police say -- and prescription drugs are the gateway.
"There is an explosion of heroin use in Weber County," says Sgt. Troy Burnett, of Weber Morgan Narcotics Strike Force.
In 2008 and 2009 combined, Burnett said, the strike force made 34 heroin arrests.
In contrast, two heroin arrests by the strike force late Friday bring the total since January 2010 to 35, surpassing the total of the previous two years in just 5.5 months.
During the same time frame, the volume of heroin seized by strike force agents has skyrocketed to 5.4 pounds so far in 2010, up from just a half-pound taken in 2008 and 2009 combined.
Burnett believes the demand for heroin is being driven by prescription drug abusers looking for a cheaper fix.
"The last several years, there has been a lot of abuse of pain pills, Oxycontin or Oxycodone, specifically. It's an opiate. All those high school students probably start off on using those, getting addicted to those eventually, and they're really expensive to obtain," he said.
"Where it's an opiate-based addiction, they can transfer or evolve in using heroin, which is much cheaper and much easier to get, because of the vast supply in Salt Lake."
Only one of the 33 people the strike force has busted this year has told Burnett they started with an addiction to something other than prescription meds.
Whatever motivates a high schooler to start popping painkillers, kids don't understand how addictive they can be, he said.
"Prescription drugs come with a false mindset, because it comes from a pharmacy or a doctor, that it's OK, it's kind of a 'good' drug," Burnett said. "The problem with these drugs is they can be a first-time use addiction."
Burnett said he's met "some absolute bright kids" who didn't realize what the consequences of one choice could be.
"That's the real travesty in this. People in high school or just out of high school, very young people with their entire life in front of them, they make the mistake, the bad choice of using it and the next thing you know, they're addicted to Oxycontin. Next thing you know, they have a lifelong addiction to heroin," he said. "It's one of the most powerful addictions there can be to drugs."
Wendi Davis, program director for substance abuse and domestic violence services for Weber Human Services, said prescription drug abuse and overdoses are an increasing problem.
There is a perception that prescription drugs carry a lesser stigma than street drugs, like heroin or meth, Davis said.
"There's definitely a perception for someone who is addicted to pain meds, that there may have been a valid reason to start using those pain meds, that there was valid pain. 'Gosh, it's legal, it's been prescribed, it's safe,' " Davis said. "The perception is you wouldn't become addicted like a street drug."
But one leads to the other, she said.
"We're seeing our population ... changing to where it's more a younger age group, between 18 and 25, coming in with heroin use and prescription drugs, which you would expect maybe later on."
Davis said she doesn't know whether that's because people are being introduced to harder drugs at a younger age or because of a greater availability of those drugs.
"The trend is moving more toward that younger aged population, but I would agree with the (strike) force ... if (users) get to a point where the prescription drug is no longer available for whatever reason, the addiction is now in place where you're going to seek out the street drug of heroin," Davis said.
Though Weber Human Services statistics lag behind the up-to-date statistics offered by the Weber Morgan Narcotics Strike Force, the data show the number of treatment admissions for heroin in the county increasing from 29 cases in 2007 to 41 in 2008, then jumping again to 69 cases in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009.
The 2009 number represents a 44 percent increase from the prior year.
Most of the drugs in the Top of Utah are supplied through Salt Lake City, Burnett said, but 100 percent of the heroin comes from there.
The strike force works closely with agencies in the Salt Lake area, sharing information and resources, but the problem continues.
"These are very well, highly connected people that can pick up a phone and call people in the cartels," Burnett said. "It's kind of frustrating, because you put in a lot of time and effort and arrest these guys. You think, OK, we've shut down that line of trafficking, but a few days later, somebody takes their place."
Drug and alcohol abuse problems have far-reaching effects on society and the state.
The Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health estimates approximately 85 percent of Utah's prison population has a substance abuse problem.
The 2009 annual report issued by the division indicates that for individuals receiving treatment, alcohol remains the most abused substance, followed by methamphetamine, marijuana, heroin, prescription drugs and cocaine/crack.
Treatment admissions for meth began a rapid rise in 2002, but a statewide "End Meth Now" campaign has helped bring that number down sharply from 30 percent of admissions to 20 percent, as alcohol, marijuana, heroin and prescriptions treatment admissions trend up in varying degrees.
"For nonprescription drugs, the one that has been on the top of the radar for the past several years, if not a decade or more, has been methamphetamine," Burnett said.
That could change.
"The way things are going, heroin will overcome methamphetamine as our No. 1 drug," Burnett said. "If the trend continues."