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Sheriff Sounds the Alarm on Rising Heroin Deaths

May 29, 1986|NANCY WRIDE | Times Staff Writer

Heroin deaths in Orange County may reach an "all-time high" by year's end if the alarming rate of such overdoses persists, Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates said Wednesday.

Heroin claimed nearly 50% more victims in 1985 than in 1984, and 31 have already met heroin-induced deaths in the first three months of this year, according to a Sheriff's Department report.

If that trend continues, there may be 130 to 140 heroin-related deaths in 1986, Gates said, "and I find that very scary."

'140 Human Beings'

"We're looking at 140 human beings dying in 1986," Gates said. "If those people were killed in an intersection in a car, if they were killed . . . because of an event where they were getting trampled and killed, there would be some impact from that (on the public)."

The Forensic Science Services and Coroner's Division annual report for 1985, a select summary of deaths investigated by the Sheriff's Department, revealed information designed to "assist the medical community in analyzing the cause and factors in traumatic, drug and alcohol-related deaths."

The study focused on an increase in traffic fatalities--in which alcohol was found in the drivers in 50% of the cases--and pointed out that cocaine "is now the third most often-found drug in coroner's cases after alcohol and morphine."

But the surge in heroin deaths was the most dramatic statistic, Gates and narcotics investigators said, and the study provided a profile of those on the drug who died last year.

The report found that 85% of heroin-related deaths were men. The greatest portion of the deaths--35%--involved people between the ages of 31 and 35. The youngest victim was 20, the oldest 70.

Also, the use of cocaine with heroin--known as "speed balling"--is increasing. More than a third of those who died after a heroin injection had also used cocaine, the study said.

County authorities do not agree on what has sparked the escalation of heroin deaths, the highest number since 1976, when the fatalities peaked at 76 and then steadily dropped to an all-time low of a dozen three years later.

Some narcotics investigators said that the recent influx of a more potent form of the drug, known as black tar heroin, and "speed balling," may partially explain the rise in heroin deaths.

"The tar heroin has a surprise effect," Larry Ragle, director of Forensic Science Services, said Wednesday. "There is not what you'd call product quality assurance levels with drugs. One (dose) may have 10 milligrams of heroin and another may have 10 times that much and visually, it won't look any bigger."

Brown Heroin in Past

Gates said that, in previous years, law enforcement officers were generally encountering Mexican brown heroin, with a purity of 3% to 7%.

"The black tar, as they're calling it now, which is a very concentrated heroin, is running 20% to 30% stronger than the normal heroin that most (users) are accustomed to," Gates said. "A lot of the deaths are situations where they didn't know how much they were taking."

The same lethal unpredictability surfaces when alcohol or cocaine are combined with heroin, Ragle said.

Gates suggested that the abundance of heroin has little to do with the increased number of heroin deaths because "the market will follow the demand."

Reducing heroin deaths--or any drug-related fatality--will come only with a change in the public's attitude and tolerance of drug use and "the fad thing in our time," Gates said. He said peer group pressure, anti-drug campaigns such as those led by Nancy Reagan and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and opposition from members of high-profile professions such as sports and the entertainment industry are essential. Both Ragle and Gates said that heroin use favors no particular income class or geographic area in the county. A 70-year-old resident of affluent Balboa Island in Newport Beach overdosed on heroin last year, Gates said.

"Availability is always there, and it allows the demand," Gates said. "It's like . . . wanting to buy bobby socks and pleated skirts when we were in school, but when your peer group stops buying them, the fad goes," Gates added. "I think it's really as simple as that."

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