SALT LAKE CITY — Many illicit prescription drug and heroin buyers in Salt Lake City are people with jobs and families who drive into the city and not stereotypical addicts, police said Thursday at a conference examining the drug problem that’s been described as an epidemic.
“The majority of our arrests are not your homeless junkie,” said Salt Lake City Police Deputy Chief Josh Scharman. “They are the people who are trying to keep their jobs and families together, but heroin can be merciless.”
He joined investigators from Ogden and the Drug Enforcement Administration to share lessons from the trenches of investigating drug crime at the Utah Heroin and Opioid Summit.
It’s aimed at helping police and health care workers understand drugs that caused most of the state’s 603 drug overdose deaths in 2014. The figure marks a 36 percent increase from 2006 and mirrors a similar jump in drug overdose deaths around the country.
A large part of the illicit prescription drug supply still comes through doctors or medical facilities, said John Eddington with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
But there’s also growing trend of synthetic opioids like fentanyl being made into pill form with pill-press machines and passed off as drugs like oxycodone on the street. That can contribute to overdose deaths because people don’t realize they’re taking a far stronger drug, Eddington said.
“The hazards of fentanyl is what scares the crap out of me,” he said.
Much of the drug supply in Utah starts in Salt Lake City, but from there it makes its way to cities like Ogden. Heroin was relatively uncommon two decades ago, but in recent years seizures have increased dramatically, said police Lt. Troy Burnett.
“We have seen the opioid issue affect every corner of our community,” he said, citing examples of doctors, teachers and a police officer from his own unit.
Combating the drug trade takes investigation and education, Scharman said.
He cited a Salt Lake City police operation launched Thursday: Dozens of people picked up near the city’s main homeless shelter were given the option of going into treatment immediately after arrest instead of heading to jail.
No numbers were immediately provided on how many took up the treatment offer after being assessed to make sure they were not dealing drugs, and how many went to jail.
Scharman said even if many refuse, getting some users into treatment quickly is worthwhile.