Has Alabama's heroin epidemic reached the River Region? - WSFA.com: News Weather and Sports for Montgomery, AL.

Has Alabama's heroin epidemic reached the River Region?

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MONTGOMERY CO., AL (WSFA) -

It's proof of a growing drug problem in Alabama- a federal indictment, charging 22 people with offenses in connection with a heroin ring that spanned three different states. 

Much of the heroin had been altered with fentanyl, a pain medication, contributing to the death of at least two people in Alabama. It was also responsible for multiple non-fatal overdoses, according to the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee. Arrests were made in Tennessee, Missouri and North Alabama Friday. 

In Jefferson County alone, there have been 51 heroin-related deaths so far this year. There were 58 deaths in 2013. Authorities say heroin related deaths have more than quadrupled in Jefferson County in the last five years. 

Barry Matson is the chairman of the Alabama Drug Abuse Task Force. He's also been a prosecutor for 25 years. He says drug abuse and drug crimes are the biggest threat to Alabama and heroin is playing a bigger and bigger part in that. 

"Heroin is a significant problem for all of us," he said. "The amount of deaths and heroin overdoses that are coming from the abuse of heroin are alarming."

Matson says Alabama will need a multi-prong approach to tackle the heroin problem- from education and prevention in our schools and communities to strong enforcement and prosecution as well as treatment.

"With the heroin abuse and the heroin deaths we've been having you've got a pure form, a pure form  that's coming through and you'll see that some if it is laced with fentanyl and things like that. You have those higher strengths and higher dosage and people are dying," he told WSFA. 

Lt. Randy Pollard is an investigator with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office. He says heroin isn't as big of a problem here as some other drugs. But more and more prescription pill addicts are turning to it.

Pill manufacturers have made it so that users can't cook out the time release element in pain killers so addicts are making the switch to heroin.

"Earlier on, you could cook the time release out of it. Instead of just having a slow release of it all day long, you would actually cook it out and ingest it and that's the way you would get high from it. The company itself changed its chemical make up so that you couldn't do that anymore. Chemically, you can't reduce oxycontin down to get high from it any more," Pollard explained. "Heroin gives the same high. Actually it's a lot cheaper to get heroin and easier to get heroin."

According to local and state officials, it's only a matter of time before Alabama's heroin epidemic is on the River Region's doorstep. 

"Heroin is one of those drugs that you're not going to see until you start seeing the deaths and that's going to be when that pure strain hits this area. So it's here and it's being used and you'll see it when you start seeing the overdoses," Matson said. "Heroin is in Alabama. It has been here for a lot of years. And it ebbs and flows- its use does. It's peaking now and we have young and old people that are dying from it and it'll continue until we get a handle on it."

"We will experience a problem with it. I don't know when it would happen. I don't know if it'll be as big as it is in Birmingham or other places. It just depends on the market. If there's a market for it here, if people go looking for it here then there will be suppliers who show up to supply that need and that's where we come in," Pollard added. 

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