People tend to voice their opinions confidently on the topic of drug use in Homer or the Lower Kenai Peninsula – that it is increasingly a problem showing up in other crimes such as burglaries. It does seem that now, more than in the years 2005-2010, drug use and arrests have risen. It is no exaggeration that every week, at least two or three people are arrested for misconduct involving methamphetamine, heroin and other devastating drugs. A steady flow of sixth-degree misconduct charges related to marijuana also make way through the police logs and court charges.
Homer Police Chief Mark Robl has explained to the Homer City Council that Homer has seen waves of drug use through the decades. When he arrived in the 1980s, cocaine was a big problem in Homer. That calmed down for many years, then new waves surface. Abusing prescription drugs like oxycodone was a trend until the past year or so when pharmaceutical companies switched the recipe they use to create it.
Now it only comes in gel caps, Robl said. Drug users formerly crushed the pill to defeat the time release agent that prevented a high. “All of a sudden, it’s not the drug of choice,” he said.
Hospitals tend to have the better idea of drug use in a community, but they do not, and cannot in most cases by law, report to authorities when someone arrives in the emergency room with a drug-related problem.
One sure way to measure the problem, at least in so far as statistics can be trusted to paint an accurate picture, is through the national counting system that looks at hospital emergency rooms. How many people were documented as having drug overdoses or another related medical emergency?
South Peninsula Hospital and all hospitals are part of the tabulation system. National estimates on drug-related visits to hospital emergency departments are obtained from the Drug Abuse Warning Network, called DAWN. This is a public health surveillance system managed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Statistics for 2010 were released this year. The lag points to how complex the system is for gathering data.
• Cocaine came in on top at 488,101 or 157.8 per 100,000 people.
Heroin caused 224,706 hospital visits, or 72.6 per 100,000 people.
• Marijuana, the so-called passive drug that many advocate should be legal, sent 461,028 people to the hospital, or 149 per 100,000 people.
• It remained true that pharmaceuticals continued to wreck devastation, with 1,345,645 hospitalized. That pushes the per capita number to 434.9 per 100,000.
• DAWN records that anti-anxiety and insomnia drugs harmed 152.8 out of 100,000. Benzodiazepines, antidepressants and pain relievers hurt a higher per capita number at 213.3. But narcotic pain relievers remained big in the picture as well at 425,247 visits or 137.4 per capita.
• Hydrocodone and oxycodone appeared to be tapering off, at least in terms of overdose or other medical emergencies, with 37.4 and 59.1 per capita numbers.
Alaska reporting numbers are available a year or two after the fact as well, so that understanding drug use lags a year or two after-the-fact. But the profile shown in such numbers helps law enforcement document trends we’re also seeing in another form.
Homer Police Chief Robl says Homer is definitely seeing a new wave in drug use, a switch to heroin abuse. Meth is still around and it’s still a problem, but the center stage has made way for heroin, which authorities believe is coming out of Mexico.
Marijuana is also prevalent. “It always has been in Homer. It’s not more than it used to be, but there isn’t any less,” Robl said.
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