Horror of heroin descends on Clark County

Drug displacing meth as major menace among young adults

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer


photoTerry Hurd, the father of 24-year-old Adam Hurd, who died last summer of a heroin overdose, remembers his son on May 15, Adam's birthday.

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Heroin cuts across age, economic boundaries

Five years ago, Clark County Superior Court's drug court always had the same type of user: Middle-age, lower-income meth addicts, said therapeutic courts coordinator Brad Finegood.

Now, the population that comprise the therapeutic court is becoming younger -- those like Adam Hurd -- and come from all economic backgrounds.

"Heroin involves every cross-section of the public," defense attorney Barry Brandenburg said.

"We've seen working-class moms all the way to kids," echoed Finegood.

The issue with treating heroin addicts, as opposed to meth, is that physical withdrawals tend to be more severe. With heroin, flu-like symptoms, such as vomiting and diarrhea, cause a number of people to quickly relapse, Finegood said.

"It seems harder to kick initially," Finegood said.

That poses an added struggle for the drug court and treatment providers who work to ensure offenders don't relapse. Treatment specialists, in some cases, rely on methadone or Suboxone to wean users off heroin. Both drugs are analgesics that satisfy a person's opiate dependency without providing the euphoric state of heroin.

Finegood said the drugs have a good success rate and make treatment tolerable. He's come across many users who mentally want to be free from heroin, but are so physically dependent on the opiate that being clean seems unattainable.

— Laura McVicker

For Adam Hurd, the end came on what was supposed to be a happy day.

On that hot summer evening, his father, Terry, was hosting a barbecue for family friends at his house. Wondering where his son had gone, he went inside to check.

There, in the bathroom, the father found Adam hunched over unconscious, next to black tar heroin on the sink.

Summoning a friend to dial 911, Terry Hurd frantically started to perform CPR.

As family friends milled in the hallway, Adam Hurd struggled to breathe. Twenty minutes later, paramedics arrived and rushed him to the hospital.

After a bitter fight with addiction, relapse and rehab, the 24-year-old Vancouver man was aiming to beat the drug.

The powerful opiate claimed his life, three days later, on Aug. 24, 2011.

"Two years and he never had a chance to fight it," the father said.

It is a drug that police and attorneys dub the "new meth" and is now an epidemic among young adults.

Prosecutors and police say that while tragic, Hurd's death and addiction to heroin is an example of an alarming trend.

Heroin use among teenagers and early twentysomethings is skyrocketing in Clark County at a pace that authorities are grappling to understand.

Between 2007 and last year, the number of possession of heroin cases filed in Clark County Superior Court rose nearly 400 percent -- from 36 cases in 2007 to 139 cases in 2011, according to statistics provided by the Clark County Prosecutor's Office.

At the same time, use of methamphetamine, though still considered widespread, significantly declined in Clark County, from 595 cases to 274 cases over the same period. Police say a middle-age population of users is addicted to meth, while a fresh, new crop of young adults now choose heroin, not understanding the deadly consequences.

"A generation grew up hearing a lot about meth, but nothing about heroin," said Clark County sheriff's Sgt. Mike Cooke, who heads the drug task force.

Experts say some users are as young as 15, and many users get hooked by high school graduation. The epidemic also appears concentrated in northern Clark County.

"By the time (Drug Court) gets them at 20, they've been doing it for two years," said defense attorney Barry Brandenburg, who represents therapeutic court defendants.

As the numbers continue to climb, police, prosecutors and drug treatment experts are still trying to figure out an adequate solution. Most heroin comes from Mexican cartels and is not produced locally.

"Right now, heroin is really easy to buy," said Senior Deputy Prosecutor Tonya Rulli. "We're just now in the phase of finding the suppliers."

Painkiller abuse

A boom in prescription painkiller abuse, particularly among teenagers, led to the rise in heroin, attorneys and drug treatment experts say. Increasingly, beginning in 2006, teenagers turned to their parents' medicine chests to steal Oxycontin to smoke or inject.

Already addicted to Oxycontin or Vicodin, teens began using heroin, a depressant that targets the central nervous system and provides the same high. There was a bonus for users who switched, Cooke said: Oxycontin pills bought on the street go for $35 or $40 a pill, compared to $20 to $30 for a hit of heroin.

"People are seeking out heroin because it's a cheaper alternative," Cooke said. "Almost exclusively that's what we hear: They started with Oxy and moved to heroin."

Cooke says users start by smoking heroin, which comes in the form of black tar or powder. More prolific users move to "slamming," or injecting the opiate with a needle.

Fast addiction

Hurd, whose overdose led to the arrest and conviction of three heroin dealers this spring, was a chief example of how heroin pervades the young adult population, experts say. The energetic, thrill-seeking 2005 Columbia River High School graduate never used alcohol or marijuana in high school, his father said.

His addiction started at a party just after high school graduation. Curious about Oxycontin, Adam Hurd tried it once.

That was enough. He started stealing his father's painkillers. After four years of recreationally using Oxycontin, he tried heroin as a cheaper form of the opiate. This led to a downward spiral.

He could go only a few hours without a fix. He started stealing family members' personal belongings to pawn for quick cash. A low point, Terry Hurd said, was when his son stole his younger stepsister's Game Boy player for heroin money.

Since the father and son were close, Adam Hurd was open about why he chose heroin. "He said, 'It's cheaper and easier to get,' " Terry Hurd recalled.

While his body craved the drug, his son was emotionally desperate to get clean, Terry Hurd said. He entered a rehabilitation facility in Astoria, Ore., in December 2010.

After a 60-day stay there and another month at a halfway house in Beaverton, Ore., Hurd was discharged with a resolution to stay clean.

It didn't last long. At the beginning of the summer of 2011, Terry Hurd was called to the hospital because his son had overdosed.

When the father showed up, Adam Hurd was crying and vowing that the overdose marked his last time using.

About three weeks later, he overdosed again. He was using at a hotel when he fell unconscious and his girlfriend gave him CPR, Adam Hurd recounted to his father later.

"If he doesn't get out of the drugs, he'll die," the father remembered thinking.

Tough penalties, treatment

One of the dealers who sold Adam Hurd the fatal dose of heroin, Jerome Otto, will be sentenced May 29 for controlled-substance homicide. Otto faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

As prosecutors move to tackle the epidemic, they say both tough penalties and treatment is important. Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said his office takes a two-pronged approach. First, Golik said he wants to aggressively prosecute drug dealers. Second, the prosecutor wants to give incentive for heroin addicts with no criminal record who enter the court system on possession charges to enter drug court.

He said getting addicts treatment is a crucial step in curbing the rise. However, Golik said he plans to prosecute offenders who sell a fatal dose of the opiate.

The prosecutor anticipates more controlled-substance homicide cases dealing with heroin because those users are more likely to overdose than with other recreational drugs.

"I think anyone who deals heroin knows full well it's an extremely dangerous drug," Golik said.

Otto and his girlfriend, Brittany Sonnen, sold to Hurd through a third person, Adam Sonnen. Terry Hurd said his son exclusively obtained his drugs through those three people, and they knew he was desperately trying to get clean.

During the summer of 2011, Terry Hurd moved with his son to Baker City, Ore., to work at a family mining business as a way to isolate his son from the drug dealers.

The two would routinely come back to Vancouver for short visits, but Terry Hurd had a rule: He was to not communicate with user friends. Adam Hurd could see his girlfriend, but she had to leave her car keys and phone at the house if they left.

When the father and son went home the week of Adam Hurd's death, the 24-year-old told his girlfriend in code on the phone to buy some heroin.

At first, Terry Hurd couldn't understand why his son would succumb to an addiction he so desperately wanted to shake. In the time since his son's death, Terry Hurd said now he does understand.

"I got a better understanding of the drug," Hurd said. "Not that my son was weak, but that the drug was powerful."

Laura McVicker: http://twitter.com/col_courts; http://facebook.com/reportermcvicker; laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; 360-735-4516.