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Heroin Holding More and More People Under Its Spell

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July 20, 2000 -- Singer Lou Reed described a heroin high as feeling like Jesus' son. But more and more, the drug is apt to instead act like one of it's many slang names: Judas. According to a new government report, the drug is killing more people by overdose in the Portland and Seattle areas every year, and the problem, according to one expert, is nationwide.

The CDC reports heroin overdose deaths in Multnomah County, Ore., (of which 75% of the population lives in Portland) rose from 46 in 1993 to 111 in 1999. The majority was men, and almost half of the people were 45 to 54 years old. During six years of investigation, almost 400 people were known to die from heroin overdose. Among men 25 to 54 in this area, overdose causes about as many deaths as cancer, AIDS, or heart disease.

That may be just the tip of the iceberg. Another CDC report on King County, Wash., -- which includes Seattle -- shows opiate overdose deaths increased 134% from 1990 to 1999, peaking in 1998 at 140.

Gary Oxman, MD, MPH, the chief health officer of the Multnomah County Health Department, says one reason for the spike in heroin deaths is access. Interstate 5 runs from Los Angeles up to Seattle, and Oxman tells WebMD it's a key passageway for a type of heroin called "black tar," which comes from Mexico and South and Central America.

The problem may not just be I-5 related, though, says Oxman, who claims many communities do not actively look for this problem. Heroin overdoses may get lost among the broad category of drug-related deaths, a "laundry basket" term. "It may be occurring in lots of other communities that simply aren't aware or aren't tracking the data carefully," Oxman says.

Glenn Backes, MSW, MPH, would likely agree. Backes tells WebMD the system nationwide to track drug overdoses is very poor, so the data is very incomplete. But it is known, for instance, that heroin overdose is the No. 1 cause of death for men aged 15 to 44 in Utah. The same goes for several cities in New Mexico. San Francisco has a "huge problem," and presumably other West Coast cities do, too. Backes is director of the health and harm reduction program for the Lindesmith Center, a drug policy think tank in New York City.

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