ONTARIO – Local police say they are seeing more cases of heroin in a troubling signal the nation’s opiate epidemic is touching Malheur County.

“It’s been coming along for about a year. It’s coming in from all over,” said Sgt. Bob Speelman of the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, who leads the region’s High Desert Drug Task Force.

Mike Stensrud, the Oregon Health Authority’s prescription drug overdose prevention coordinator for eastern Oregon, agreed. 

Stensrud oversees a four-county region – including Malheur County – in eastern Oregon.

“It is going to get a lot worse in eastern Oregon before it gets better,” said Stensrud.

Stensrud said there is also evidence that the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl – often mixed, or “cut” with heroin – is in use across the region. 

Stensrud said since Jan. 1 county emergency medical personnel administered Naloxone, a medication used to block the effects of opioids, 37 times. In 2017 the county recorded two drug-related deaths, according to state data.

Stensrud said there is a direct link between the number of opioid prescriptions issued by doctors and abuse rates across the nation and the region.

Federal data showed Malheur County had a prescription rate more than twice the national average – 149 prescriptions per 100 people compared to 59 prescriptions at the national level.

 “More youth are becoming addicted and more people are developing a heroin addiction because of an opioid dependency that resulted after being prescribed pain medication,” according to a state threat assessment published earlier this year.

“At one point in the four counties I serve we were in the 75th percentile as far as prescription rates go nationally,” said Stensrud. 

Ray Rau, Nyssa police chief, said his officers are aware heroin is becoming readily accessible. 

“We’ve talked to a number of meth users who are moving to heroin because it doesn’t keep them up,” said Rau.

Travis Johnson, Malheur County undersheriff, agreed.

“We’ve had a couple of cases of heroin which is more than we have had in the past for sure. There has always been a little bit of it out there, but it is becoming more prevalent,” said Johnson.

A state report said no arrests were reported in Malheur County last year for heroin, cocaine or prescription drug offenses.

Speelman said as the opioid epidemic hit other sections of the nation, Malheur County remained untouched. 

 “We are kind of behind the times out here. Portland has been seeing it for a year. It is cheap. One individual told us it is just as easy to get it as meth,” said Speelman.

State officials report the price of brown powder heroin has dropped 25 percent in the past year.

Speelman said Malheur County’s proximity to the Boise metro area doesn’t help either.

“Boise, Nampa, Caldwell – it is all over there,” said Speelman.

Dave Goldthorpe, Malheur County district attorney, said he isn’t a shocked that heroin is in the county. 

“I was surprised it wasn’t already here when I got here,” said Goldthorpe, who came to the county courthouse from Clatsop County, where he worked as an assistant district attorney. In Clatsop County, he said, heroin had replaced meth as the illegal narcotic of choice.

Speelman said the High Desert Task Force is shifting its focus to heroin.

 “We are increasing our investigative and intelligence gathering on the opioid side,” said Speelman.

Johnson said the sheriff’s office is also employing different techniques.

“We continue to support the High Desert Task Force by supplying a detective sergeant. We are also running some additional patrols at random times in different areas,” said Johnson.

In another sign of greater heroin use, local police carry naloxone, also known as Narcan. Narcan is a medication used to nullify the effects of an opioid overdose. Nyssa officers and sheriff’s deputies carry Narcan and the Ontario police will seek – if funding allows - to equip its officers with Narcan this year.

Speelman said the impact from heroin is going to become more evident.

“It is already hitting these small communities and hitting them hard,” said Speelman.

Gustavo Morales, the executive director of EUVALCREE, a civic-action group in Ontario, said a community effort will be needed to address the city’s gang problem.

“Families supporting families,” he said.

Morales, who is a commissioner on the Oregon Advocacy Commission-Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said more options for youth are needed.

“There is no path for them, no alternative, no system in place to keep them from that kind of activity,” said Morales. “It (gangs) shows how vulnerable our youth are to being recruited because of the lack of opportunities provided in our community.”

The opioid epidemic evolved out of the widespread use of prescription opioid pain medicine. Misuse of highly-addictive medications resulted in higher overdose rates. 

In 2015, 33,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses including prescription opioids, heroin and illegally produced fentanyl.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 115 people die from opioid overdose every day in the U.S. About 80 percent of the individuals who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.