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As Deaths from Overdoses Increase, Heroin’s Presence a Troubling Trend

Santa Barbara County authorities point to jump in variety, local availability of heroin as coroner begins tracking death toll

[Noozhawk’s note: This article is one in a series on Santa Barbara County’s heroin epidemic. Click here for a complete series index.]

In the first four months of 2015, the Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Office already had recorded six deaths that investigators had traced back specifically to heroin overdoses.

Most of the deceased had heroin in their systems along with other drugs, like methamphetamines or prescription medications. It’s a common combination — and a lethal one.

                               |  Heroin Rising  |  Complete Series Index  |

Two overdose deaths on the same day in June prompted the Sheriff's Department to issue a public warning about the dangers of heroin and the mixing of other drugs and alcohol.

Derek Velasquez, 27, was one of the two victims. He was found in his Lompoc home on June 4, dead of an overdose. Authorities linked his death to acute amphetamine intoxication, and blood test results revealed significant amounts of heroin in his body.

Later that day, Jessie Mendoza, 32, of Santa Ynez, was found dead in a Solvang hotel room. Test results found the presence of heroin, methamphetamine and the prescription drug Zyprexa in his bloodstream, and the Coroner’s Office said the combination — officially acute polysubstance intoxication — killed him.

In 2014, the Coroner’s Office counted 14 overdose victims with heroin in their bloodstream, nearly triple the rate in 2010. The coroner only this year began tracking deaths in which heroin overdose was the primary cause.

According to official records, a list of victims from 2014 and before shows most have heroin and its metabolites in their systems, among a number of other prescription drugs and sometimes alcohol.

The total number of drug and alcohol overdose deaths has also increased, to 59 deaths in 2014 from 33 in 2010.

Sheriff’s Lt. Kelly Moore is among those who have seen an influx of heroin here. He heads up the department’s Special Enforcement Team that investigates many of the county’s drug cases, and has six detectives and a sergeant reporting to him.

In general, most of the local heroin cases involve black tar heroin, which often is transported across the Mexico border to distribution points like Oxnard and points north.

Last month, local law enforcement also worked on a case involving Mexican brown heroin, a brown powder that is usually cut with other drugs or substances, and not a pure heroin.

“We are seeing it,” Moore said. “We’re also seeing it in combination with other drugs.”

Most of the heroin supply coming to the United States enters the country from Mexico.

Heroin is processed from morphine, which is naturally found in the seed pod of certain types of poppies that are grown in Mexico, Colombia, southeast Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Purity of the drug is based on several things, including the chemical process used to refine the drug and the substances added.

Black tar heroin — a sticky, sap-like substance — most often comes from Latin America, and is a cruder product and cheaper to produce than white powder heroin, which is more chemically refined, more powerful and often comes from countries in Asia.

The drug can also be found in a brown shade, depending on the production process and chemicals, or other additives found inside.

It is not unusual for other drugs to be added, with sometimes deadly consequences, as well as other things like sugar, lactose or starch.

The types of drugs people use in Santa Barbara County tend to run in cycles, and Moore said he and his detectives are seeing an overall increase right now of all kinds of heroin.

Moore and other law enforcement officials, including Sheriff Bill Brown, say California’s shift in the law addressing nonviolent drug cases has had a negative impact on the local drug problem.

The 2014 law, voter-approved Proposition 47, reduces some nonviolent drugs charges to misdemeanors from felonies.

Many law enforcement officials have decried the new law, noting that, before its passage, many offenders went into drug treatment to remove the felony charge from their records.

By reducing the crime to a misdemeanor from a felony, the incentive for court-ordered treatment is removed, they say.

“It really affects our ability to deal with the problem,” Moore said.

But retired Superior Court Judge George Eskin takes a different view, asserting that decriminalization is ultimately more helpful to people with addictions than incarceration.

“The stigma of a criminal arrest is an impediment to future education and employment, and a conviction only exacerbates their plight,” he said.

The policies of the U.S. War on Drugs have made the problems worse, he says, and cost taxpayers in the process.

Eskin points to successful outcomes that have been achieved in Portugal and Scandinavian countries, which have decriminalized drug use and instead focused funding and efforts on treatment framed as a public health issue.

“Law enforcement comments that addicts are prevented from getting treatment do not withstand scrutiny,” he said.

                               |  Heroin Rising  |  Complete Series Index  |

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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