Early last month, a report came to several community agencies stating there had been an apparent eight drug overdose deaths in seven days in Maricopa County.
At first, Mesa Fire Department Capt. Forrest Smith said that figured made him stumble. But then, looking at recent calls to the department, he said, it unfortunately made sense.
"It's something we've been seeing for a long time," he said.
In fact, the numbers are a bit more alarming. The Maricopa County Department of Public Health reports there were 13 probable heroine-related overdoses and six other apparent drug overdoses not directly tied to heroin in a 30-day-period, ending Oct. 26.
Smith said the fire department is making one to two calls daily on apparent overdose situations. There was a 100-plus pound seizure of heroin by law enforcement officials in one stop this summer. And then, there are the pleas for help coming into drug prevention and rehabilitation organizations.
There are no patterns. The suspected overdoses cross all lines of ethnicity, location and finances, officials said.
"There's the overmedication you have with the accidental overdoses on prescription medications. The other thing is the overdose of prescription medication such as OxyContin that we're seeing among teens, preteens and young adults," Smith said.
OxyContin or oxycodone is a prescription pain reliever. Just this week there was a report of someone walking into a Gilbert pharmacy and demanding OxyContin after indicating he had a gun. According to Gilbert Police, the man was given an undisclosed amount of OxyContin and fled the store.
"And then there's your straight heroin overdoses," Smith said. "This has no social-economic lines."
There have been clusters of deaths the past few years, said Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, a public health physician with the county. When that happens, it raises a flag that there is a "bad batch" or "extra pure" heroin floating around. The county is still awaiting confirmation through toxicology reports.
"Any time we see a cluster of deaths associated to anything, we have to investigate," she said.
Stephanie Siete, director of community education for Mesa-based Community Bridges, said her organization is also seeing or hearing similar stories. Community Bridges offers prevention and rehabilitation programs in the Valley.
"Currently heroin is a high school drug of choice. We're seeing it earlier. It's prevalent. That might contribute to why we're seeing an increase of fatalities. It's younger users. It's potent. It's available."
Siete pointed out that in 2007, 105 pounds of heroin were confiscated at the border. In June of this year, law enforcement found 103 pounds during one stop in Arizona.
"We're not shocked people are dying of this," she said. "It's just now it's being reported."
The fact is, Siete said, a teenager "just experimenting" with heroin puts his or her life in danger because the drug has become that potent.
"You have a good chance of killing yourself the first time you touch it," she said.
But it's not just young people. The suspected overdoses crossed all ages, she said.
So Siete, Smith and others in the health arena are trying to get the word out to parents, families and community leaders. Anyone who suspects drug use in a loved one should start asking questions.
"Yes, it's happening," Siete said. "But there is opportunity to save lives as long as you know what to look for and get resources."
Community Bridges can be contacted at (877) 931-9142.
Michelle Reese, East Valley Tribune