Heroin finding its way into remote Alaska communities

Devin Kelly

Heroin is increasingly finding its way into Alaska's rural communities, a symptom of what authorities describe as a recent boom in the drug's popularity.

Within the last four years, state drug investigators said, the drug has been more common in all parts of Alaska including rural villages. Drug investigators say its use crosses over socioeconomic boundaries, and users range from teenagers to older adults.

In 2012 and 2013, the state's annual drug reports observed an increase in the drug's availability throughout Alaska and concluded that "it is no longer isolated to urban areas."

Police in Nome started to find syringes in hotel rooms. Larger amounts of heroin have turned up in Kodiak drug busts, signaling what one narcotics officer described as a "gold rush" of black-market drug sales across the state.

"We are finding it in a lot of the villages out in western Alaska now," said Lt. Katherine Peterson of the Alaska Bureau of Investigations, which oversees the statewide drug enforcement unit. "I can't tell you in every village. But it is certainly unlike years ago."

In 2009, authorities made 64 heroin-related charges and arrests in Alaska. Four years later, that number has more than doubled, to 151 charges and arrests in 2013.

The figure spiked between 2011 and 2012, to 146 from 118, Peterson said.

In the 2012 drug report, the state medical examiner's office said heroin-related deaths were also on the rise.

Heroin, a highly addictive depressant, is derived from morphine and takes the form of a white to dark-brown powder or a tar-like substance.

Theories for what's fueling its popularity in Alaska include filling a void left by law enforcement crackdowns on prescription pill abuse and on the sale of ingredients used in methamphetamine, as well as the higher price people are willing to pay for the drug in remote areas.

Ties to crime

On April 19, after a months-long investigation, the Kodiak Police Department served a search warrant at a Kodiak hotel room. Officers seized about 25.3 ounces of meth and about 1.8 ounces of high-grade heroin.

The seizure amounted to the largest in the department's history. It also pointed to what police described as steadily increasing quantities of meth and heroin in the remote island city.

Between the two types of drugs, heroin's upturn is more recent, according to the police chief.

"It's definitely the trend. We've seen a lot more meth, but we've been noticing in the last few years that heroin is increasing," Police Chief Ronda Wallace said.

Heroin used to be found in trace quantities in syringes, Wallace said. Now, she said, police are recovering grams of the substance.

In a January bust, police seized 76 grams of black tar heroin and 28 grams of Afghan brown heroin in addition to other drugs.

A narcotics officer in the Kodiak department, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of involvement in current investigations, tied rising drug use to increased violent crime and property crime, and an overall increase in calls for service.

In 2007, the city fielded fewer than 8,000 calls for service on average. In 2013, that number surpassed 15,000, the officer said.

In late February, the police department began holding sessions to tell members of the public how to recognize and report drug use, recognizing that residents might be reluctant to turn in family members or friends.

After just two briefings, police noticed a higher volume of drug-related tips to the CrimeStoppers information line, the officer said.

'Gold rush' for drug dealers

In the April 19 seizure, Kodiak police estimated a street value of about $2.1 million for the meth and $35,000 for the heroin.

Some criticized those figures as wildly inflated. But Wallace said the calculation was actually conservative. Because of the island's remoteness, she said, Kodiak is considered one of the highest-street-value drug markets in the nation.

The narcotics officer said the street price calculation was based on what informants and drug dealers in the community say they get for the drugs.

That type of inflation, the officer said, is common knowledge among law enforcement authorities on a national level.

"Alaska is the new gold rush for coming up here and making a profit on drugs," the officer said.

One of the people arrested in the January bust in Kodiak was from Missouri. The man arrested on drug distribution and possession charges in connection with the April 19 operation was identified by police as a fugitive from Washington state.

Mayor speaks out

As heroin finds its way into rural communities, by air or by boat, one mayor in western Alaska who has watched a younger family member struggle with heroin addiction is determined to get out the message about the damaging effects of the drug.

Denise Michels didn't know her nephew was an addict until he told her. But the signs were there like certain behavioral changes. Then money and jewelry started to go missing from Michels' home.

Michels was elected mayor of Nome in 2003. Over the last few years, she said, the city has seen broader heroin use among residents in their 20s, a demographic that includes her nephew.

"Who would have ever thought that this would be here?" Michels said. "It happened so fast and so under the radar for the public."

Nome Police Chief John Papasodora said his department started to recognize a growing heroin trend a couple of years ago when an officer found paraphernalia at a local hotel that appeared to be from intravenous drug use.

"That was the first big clue that heroin was making a resurgence," said Papasodora, who became chief in October 2009. He said he wasn't aware of heroin cases in Nome before the hotel discovery.

In early March, the Nome City Council unanimously approved funding for a police canine detection unit, part of a widening recognition of a drug problem in the area, officials said.

The drug-sniffing dog, a Belgian Malinois named Icon, completed training Friday and is expected to be on duty by April 28, Papasodora said.

In a recent welcome address at a regional conference at Kawerak, Michels urged people to educate themselves and their children about drug use.

Her nephew is completing a drug rehabilitation program in Arizona that he entered in 2012 after telling his family he needed help.

Michels called the experience of helping a family member with addiction "eye-opening."

"We have a heroin problem" in Nome, Michels said. "We need to address this now."

Reach Devin Kelly at dkelly@adn.com or 257-4314.