Troubling rise in heroin use seen on the Island

Some who keep a close eye on the drug scene on Vashon say that black tar heroin, for the first time in recent memory, is being sold on the Island.

Stephen Bogan, a therapist who specializes in drug and alcohol counseling, said he has six or seven young people in his practice who report smoking or injecting heroin — a substance they got from a pusher on Vashon. Bogan, a veteran in the field of substance abuse counseling, said he’s not seen this level of use on Vashon before, nor has he known of an active dealer on the Island.

Sgt. Ted Boe, the King County Sheriff’s Office sergeant who oversees Vashon, said he, too, has gotten “a bit of intelligence from various sources that there’s some distribution occurring on the Island.”

“I don’t know if it’s new,” he added. “I know it’s the first time it’s come to my attention that heroin’s being distributed on the Island.”

Particularly alarming to Bogan is the apparent availability of the substance.

“It’s as cheap as pot and easier to get on the Island. I’ve heard that from a couple of kids,” Bogan said.

The news comes at a time when Vashon educators, therapists, parents and others involved in the lives of teens are working hard to address the Island’s ongoing problems with substance abuse. Many say they’ve seen signs of progress on Vashon.

Yvonne Zick, who has led parenting groups and taught classes focused on helping young people develop “refusal skills,” said she has been encouraged by the heightened awareness she sees among educators, parents and teens about the impact drug and alcohol use can have on a young person and his or her developing brain. But she too, she added, has heard about heroin use on the Island — a drug she finds frightening.

“I think of heroin as the mother of all bad drugs,” she said. “It’s a lifelong addiction. It’s a sentence you have to deal with every day.”

In a lengthy interview, one mother — who asked that her name not be used — told The Beachcomber about her son’s addiction to heroin, a slow descent that she now realizes started with his use of marijuana and alcohol when he was 15.

The boy, who’s now living out of state with relatives, grew up on Vashon and graduated from the high school not long ago. He started developing more serious addictions, she said, in the summer of his junior year, when he and his friends began using oxycodone, a narcotic painkiller considered highly addictive.

The drug was making the rounds after one teen stole his father’s prescription, she said. Another boy kept the pipeline open by stealing it from a pharmacy where he worked, she said. Her son, a client of Bogan’s, went to treatment after he told his older brother that he was struggling with his addiction to oxycodone, an opiate. After he came out of treatment, he was doing fairly well, his mother said, until last September, when he got exposed to heroin, a drug she believes was pushed on him in payment for some work he did for some men on the Island.

He went to treatment again, she said. After he returned home last winter, the pusher was soon on the phone to him, trying to get him hooked again. Her son, she said, has told her he’s “prayed and prayed” that his pusher would get caught and put in jail. She now believes her son, who again is clean, can’t return to the Island; it’s no longer safe for him.

The odyssey, she added, has been the most painful experience of her life.

“It’s unbearable to watch the devastation in his face,” she said. “He’s so smart and capable and well-liked. To see him ashamed of himself and so diminished is just the most heartbreaking thing in the world.”

Islanders, she said, dismiss Vashon’s drug problem as one relegated to “bad kids.”

“There aren’t bad kids,” she said. “There are kids who make bad decisions.”

Bogan, who knows the boy well, said his path to heroin addiction is a kind of classic story, “illustrative of what happens if there’s easy access to opiates.” It also underscores the role that adults play in this issue; parents often have opiates in their medicine cabinets — Vicodin or Percocet, for instance, both of which are commonly prescribed as a post-surgery painkiller — despite advertising campaigns attempting to educate parents about the dangers of these drugs.

Heroin is particularly frightening, he added, because of the power of the addiction and the possibility of overdosing. A few months ago, one young person from Vashon was taken to Harborview because of a heroin overdose, he added. The young person had stopped breathing and nearly died.

It’s alarming because it also requires what Bogan called “a different kind of exposure.” The pusher has to be actively involved, he noted, “teaching someone how to stick a needle in their arm.”

“For me as a human being and as an addiction specialist, when you start sticking a needle in your arm, it’s a different connection with the drug and a different level of severity,” Bogan added. “Kids sticking needles in their arms is far more serious than kids getting stoned. ... I don’t want to downplay the use of marijuana. But with heroin, the route of administration has risks of its own.”

Dan Kaufman, a coach and mental health counselor who also knows the boy who is now out of state because of his struggle with heroin, said he, too, has heard anecdotal reports about heroin use and mounting concern about what appears to be its increased presence on Vashon.

“More and more, it’s been a part of the story,” Kaufman said of heroin. “I don’t know if that means it’s increasing or we’re just talking about it more and it’s rising to the surface. ... It’s hard to nail down.”

Either way, he said, he, too, is deeply concerned about the use of a drug that can be so devastating. The real issue, he added, is the community’s response to the problem of youth drug and alcohol use — a problem Islanders have been discussing openly for nearly a decade and in an organized fashion for about six years.

“The good news has always been for me that people are talking. ... The good news is that people are reaching out and getting help for their kids,” he said.

At the same time, he added, “Kids don’t do drugs in a vacuum. As a community, as a culture, we have to take some responsibility for what kids get involved with or don’t as they move through that period of their lives. ... I think families have to take more and more responsibility for how they lead their lives.”

Islanders, like people elsewhere, he added, live in a “drug culture.”

“I think we’re in a community that asks a lot of their kids; there’s a lot of pressure, a lot of parenting in absentia,” he added. “I think there’s some deeper soul-searching we need to do.”

Boe, the sergeant with the sheriff’s office, said he, too, is alarmed by the apparent presence of a heroin dealer on the Island.

“It’s a huge deal,” he said. “We don’t want heroin used in any fashion. I think it’s different when it’s on the Island as opposed to people going to Seattle to get it.”

But even if law enforcement is able to end the on-Island distribution of heroin, if demand continues to exist, others will find a way to fill it, he said. There’s a natural progression, he added, from prescription opiates, which are expensive, to heroin, which is considerably cheaper.

“The more we can prevent the initial addiction, the better. ... You need to get to that point where people aren’t wanting the drug,” he said.

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