"Heroin Tsunami" Hitting Utah

Law enforcement officials blame the drug for surge in addiction and crime

Salt Lake City - SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah News) - Law enforcement officials say a tidal wave of addiction and crime is flooding into the State of Utah, a community problem leaving devastation in its wake.

"That community problem is a heroin tsunami," United State Attorney John Huber said at a recent news conference.

Austin Davis is a former heroin addict who's now the associate director of First Step House, a treatment center in Salt Lake City.

"It's really prevalent," Davis said in an interview with ABC4 Utah News. "You'd probably be surprised the people you pass just driving down the street who are transporting heroin in order to sell it or that are just driving around going to get it....It's kind of right underneath everyone's nose."

It's not just the homeless or junkies who are using, according to Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown.

"People from all over this valley from white collar to blue collar, male, female it knows no boundaries," Chief Brown said. "People are coming down to the Pioneer Park/Depot area to buy heroin."

Sometimes a trip downtown isn't even necessary because heroin is just a phone call away.

"The way it really works in the valley is you call that individual and it's usually a drug dealer who drives around all day delivering heroin and they tell you to meet in a certain location," Davis said. "They drive up. You give them the cash and they leave or they might even deliver it to your house."

Davis, like 80 percent of users, switched to heroin when prescription pain pills got too expensive.

"One oxycontin could be $60, $80 where a balloon of heroin which you get the same effect would be about $10," Davis said.

At a December news conference, FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency and local law enforcement officials said that desperate heroin addicts are causing a surge in robberies.

"We catch 'em. Every single one of 'em," Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said. "The reason we catch 'em is they're high and they're damn near crazy."

Sheriff Winder grew emotional  as he continued.

"Why am I so impassioned about it? Because I've been on the other end of the coin," Sheriff Winder said. "My own relative high on heroin committing a series of robberies in the Salt Lake Valley and I am forced to communicate with my family members about the potential apprehension of that individual, eventually found slumped over literally dying as heroin coursed through his veins in Pioneer Park. He now sits in my jail."

ABC4 Utah News later sat down with Sheriff Winder who shared more of his family's experiences.

"It started as a member of my family who became addicted to heroin and died not as a direct overdose but because of the lifestyle he was engaged in," Sheriff Winder said. "Since that time I've had two other family members who both have suffered mightily from heroin addiction. One took his own life after repeated attempts trying to get clean...In his last episode he recognized that it was a battle he was probably just going to lose again. He just couldn't take it."

Sheriff Winder spoke of the toll it has taken on him and his family.

"They have been some of the most painful, frustrating experiences of my life both personally and professionally," he said.

Sheriff Winder says it's time to rethink the way the criminal justice system handles addicts.

"We deal with the symptom. We don't deal with the true issue and boy it's frustrating," Winder said. "We process 40,000 people through our jail and I'm here to tell you they are exactly as my relatives. They are somebody's brother, cousin, son, you name it.... The way we're managing it right now is not effective. You do not lock a person up and punish them into sobriety. It's a myth."

Davis agrees, saying that heroin addicts need the kind of treatment and compassion he received at First Step House. If he hadn't gotten it 8 years ago? "I'd probably be dead," Davis said. "There was a period of time where it seemed like every week I'd be overdosing, passing out and waking up. I've woken up in a 7-11 bathroom with the police around me. I wasn't really that far off from probably just overdosing and dying."

After having years of his life washed away, Davis is now working every day to turn the tide of this man made disaster.

"This is hitting everybody's pocketbook," Davis said. "It's devastating families causing mass destruction and depression. It's leaving children fatherless and motherless."

And what does he tell addicts now?

"There's hope out there," Davis said. "You can come back and change your life and actually live a happy, fulfilling life."

On Tuesday March 1st, Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness (USARA) will hold the 8th Annual Rally For Recovery at the Utah State Capitol from 4 to 6 p.m. The event begins with a Walk To remember the lives lost to addiction and suicide at 4 p.m.

For more information, go to http://www.myusara.com/events/rally-for-recovery/

For more information on First Step House, go to http://www.firststephouse.org/

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