The opioid abuse epidemic may have only recently received formal recognition from the federal government and prompted McLennan County to file suit against drug companies, but the problem isn’t new to some local law enforcement and drug abuse treatment officials.
Several local law enforcement agencies are considering equipping officers with naloxone, a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses and already sees widespread use by emergency medical personnel.
Misuse of prescription opioid painkillers has continued, and a rise in heroin use has followed. Heroin, also an opioid, can be cheaper and more accessible than prescription painkillers that have similar effects, several local police officials said.
National and local elected officials have taken note. President Donald Trump designated the opioid abuse epidemic a national public health emergency Oct. 26, and the McLennan County Commissioners Court filed a lawsuit last week against large opioid manufacturers and wholesale distributors.
The city of Waco has seen heroin’s resurgence, Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said. Interstate 35 is a busy drug trafficking corridor, Swanton said.
A McLennan County grand jury indicted two South Texas men in January last year on charges of possession of heroin with intent to deliver and possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver. Department of Public Safety officials arrested the pair in Waco and reported they discovered 8 pounds of heroin and 9 pounds of methamphetamine. According to records filed in the case, the men told police they were bringing the drugs to Waco from the McAllen area.
In March last year, Woodway police arrested a 28-year-old man on charges that he provided heroin that led to another man’s overdose death in 2015.
At least 38 people have been indicted so far this year in McLennan County on possession or delivery of heroin charges, according to Tribune-Herald records. There were also four indictments for possession or delivery of oxycodone, three for methadone, 441 for methamphetamine, 107 for cocaine and 33 for THC or marijuana.
One of the many dangers of heroin, which has no approved medical use in the U.S., is that users don’t know the purity of what they buy, Swanton said. A user may gauge dosage based on a batch that is just 5 percent heroin, then get a pure batch the next time they buy and overdose because of it, he said.
Though heroin presents its own risks, all opioids can lead to deadly overdoses.
Last year alone, there were 64,000 opioid overdoses in the United States, Woodway Public Safety director Yost Zakhary said. However, Narcan has prevented hundreds of thousands of overdoses from becoming fatal, said Zakhary, who is on the Narcotics and Dangerous Drug Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Narcan is a brand of naloxone administered as a nasal spray.
One of its best qualities is that it is harmless to someone who is not overdosing, Zakhary said.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion last month stating police officers can be equipped with and administer naloxone.
Waco police are looking into buying Narcan for its officers, which costs about $37.50 per dose, Swanton said. The upfront costs would be significant, but it would be more that worth it to save even a single life, he said.
In many cases, police could administer the drug before medical personnel arrive.
“So many times, law enforcement, we’re out there 24-7. There’s never a time that police are not on the streets,” Swanton said. “Very frequently we are the first to arrive on a man down or sick person call. We’ll train officers the proper way to administer that dosage so they are comfortable supplying what very easily could be a life-saving effort.”
The officer’s first priority in those cases would be saving a life. The second would be investigating violations of the law, he said.
Over the last decade, opioid arrests have increased, Hewitt Police Chief Jim Devlin said.
Though they are trained to identify heroin and handle all drugs safely, there are some officers in the Hewitt Police Department who have never even seen heroin, Devlin said. The last two years have changed that for some.
A draft policy to adopt Narcan procedures and training sits on Devlin’s desk, he said.
The Hewitt Police Department may not be at a point where it is ready to implement the policies and ask the city council for the money needed, but Devlin said he’s going to be prepared.
“I hope we don’t get to that point. I hope that it flattens out, but I honestly don’t think it’s going to,” Devlin said.
McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara did not return repeated calls for comment.
For every 100 people in McLennan County, 77 opioid prescriptions were dispensed in 2015, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state average was 59.8 prescriptions per 100 people, and the national average was 70.6 prescriptions per 100 people.
The Cenikor Foundation’s drug abuse treatment programs in Waco have seen an 18 to 20 percent increase in people seeking treatment for opioid addiction, said Eric Jeter, senior manager at Cenikor’s detoxification and residential treatment program.
Opioid addiction often starts when a patient is prescribed an opioid painkiller after surgery or an injury, Jeter said. Once their doctor stops filling the prescription, many people discover the less-expensive alternative of heroin, he said.
Initially, someone might notice warning signs in a loved one, which can include changes in behavior, severe mood swings or frequent trips to the doctor’s office, Jeter said. Withdraw symptoms can make someone shaky, cause cold sweats, high levels of anxiety or an achy feeling, he said.
While the increase in cases has been obvious in the last two years, it has likely stemmed from an incremental increase in use, he said. As doctors started a systemwide crackdown on the way they prescribe painkillers, more people started seeking treatment, Jeter said.
The Waco Cenikor location added a program in the past year specifically aimed at helping people trying to get off painkillers, he said. The program allows patients to go through a mild detox in their own homes with the help of medication, allowing the patient to continue to work and be around family, he said.