Demand brings heroin to Columbus

Heroin is available to people in Columbus because of the theory of supply and demand.

“They send it where they can sell it,” Sgt. Stephen Wheeles, spokesman for the Indiana State Police post in Versailles, said of drug suppliers. “It speaks to the volume of the number of people getting addicted to heroin.”

In the past week, two Bartholomew County residents died from suspected heroin overdoses and several others were hospitalized after their lives were saved when police officers administered an anti-opioid drug, Narcan.

Toxicology reports indicate that a 29-year-old Columbus man who died Feb. 26 overdosed on heroin and methadone, Bartholomew County Coroner Larry Fisher said Thursday. Methadone is a painkiller used to help addicts detoxify from opioid addiction.

Toxicology results for a 21-year-old Columbus woman who died about 2:13 a.m. Tuesday are still pending, Fisher said.

Deputy Prosecutor Greg Long, who handles cases generated by the Bartholomew County Joint Narcotics Enforcement Team, said most of the heroin obtained locally is coming from Indianapolis and Cincinnati. Many of the cases involve local residents driving to the bigger cities to purchase heroin and bringing it back to sell, he said.

The joint narcotics team, formed early last year to aggressively pursue drug dealers, is made up of representatives from the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department, Columbus Police Department and the county prosecutor’s office. Its purpose is to beef up local narcotics investigations, with Long assigned to prosecute cases the team investigates.

The task force, Indiana State Police, Columbus Police and the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department continue to call canine units out to the interstate on traffic stops in which drugs are suspected. Methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and marijuana have been found in various traffic stops in and near Bartholomew County along Interstate 65.

The Bartholomew County Jail already has booked seven individuals into the jail on heroin-related charges this year — far ahead of last year’s pace, jail officials said. In 2015, there were 21 heroin bookings for the entire year, including six for dealing heroin, jail officials said.

While methamphetamine is generating more arrests, Sheriff Matt Myers said the community’s highest priority needs to be heroin because the drug is killing people.

Most of the heroin showing up locally is coming from the southwest border region of the United States, said Greg Westfall, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency assistant special agent in charge for Indiana.

States including Arizona, New Mexico and Texas share a border and access to Mexico, he said, and from those states, heroin can be moved “every way you can imagine.”

Those ways range from using nationally known shipping services to driving it along the interstate system to larger Midwestern cities, Westfall said.

Drugs coming into Indiana or Columbus aren’t an Indiana-centric problem, he said. “It’s happening all over the country,” he said.

As the heroin arrives in the county through larger cities such as Cincinnati, Louisville and Indianapolis, where larger shipments are delivered, smaller dealers then use freight services or transport it by vehicle on interstates to pick it up and transport it to places where users live, Westfall said.

Bartholomew County Prosecutor Bill Nash said heroin is a relative newcomer to the county’s drug problems.

“We didn’t have any heroin issues as recently as five years ago,” he said. “But that has radically changed.”

Nash said he attended a conference about drug abuse where a speaker described the current problem with heroin as stemming from the federal government crackdown on opioid pain medications.

When federal officials began tracking doctors’ prescriptions of pain medication including the potent painkiller Oxycontin, the multiple refills some people were receiving dried up, leading many to look for a way to continue an addiction that began with prescription pills, he said.

Instead, the individuals turned to heroin where $10 could buy enough to kill someone, he said.

Prosecutors also are working with laws that tend to weigh heroin and methamphetamine offenses the same, although the amounts people have in most cases differ greatly, Long said.

In heroin cases, most individuals have small amounts, rather than the larger amounts seen with methamphetamine, Long said. As a result, smaller amounts of heroin don’t meet the weight requirements for enhancing charges based on the amount of the drug, he said.

When the prosecutor’s office sends out heroin to be tested, some samples have come back with other drugs in them, Long said. So it’s difficult to tell sometimes whether what is being sold here is heroin or a mixture of heroin with other substances, he said.

Republic reporter Mark Webber contributed to this story.

Have a tip?

If you have a tip to identify drug dealers or drug trafficking, call the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department tip line at 812-379-1712.

To reach the Columbus Police Department tip line, call 812-376-2600.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.