Cocaine deaths rise significantly

From the Oregonian, September 6, 1988

Deaths from cocaine overdoses this year are up significantly from 1987 a circumstance the state medical examiner blames on the rise in “crack” cocaine use.

Overdose deaths from methamphetamine, or “speed,” also have soared, according to figures from the state medical examiner’s office. Deaths from heroin overdoses, on the other hand, appear to have stabilized from previous years.

At the same time, police seizures of hard drugs this year also are up significantly over 1987 — as evidenced by the FBI’s recently announced seizure in North Portland of 12 pounds of tar heroin with a street value of $1 million.

Oregon Medical Examiner Dr. Larry Lewman said total overdose deaths so far in 1988 in Oregon stand at 45. That’s 50 pan the 30 deaths recorded for all of 1987.

“The difference, I think, is the crack,” Lewman said. Crack is a form of cocaine that is hardened in “rock” form and then smoked.

He said most of last year’s cocaine deaths involved intravenous use of another form of the drug, hydrochloride cocaine, also known on the street as “shooting up.”

This year has seen 22 statewide deaths from cocaine overdose — a 69 percent increase over the 13 deaths in 1987.

There have been eight methamphetamine-related deaths this year — a 700 percent increase over the single methamphetamine death last year.

There have been 21 heroin overdose deaths this year — a 31 percent increase over the 16 deaths last year.

The heroin numbers are far lower than the 50 to 60 annual deaths recorded in 1985 and 1986, Lewman said. He added that the heroin problem appeared to be stabilizing.

Capt. Robert Brooks of the Portland Police Bureau’s Drug and Vice Division said the heroin numbers did not mean necessarily that heroin use was decreasing.

“Whether a person dies from the stuff is frankly a measure of how good a user they are,” he said.

He said the high number of heroin overdose deaths in the mid-1980s occurred when Mexican black tar heroin poured into Portland. Users who had been accustomed to white powder heroin consumed too much of the more powerful black tar heroin.

Lewman said the increase in the number of methamphetamine-related deaths probably stemmed from an increase in the supply of the chemical.

“It’s a steady, but upward trend,” he said.

Brooks agreed. “We’re seeing a many-fold increase in the use of methamphetamine,” he said, adding that its effects were similar to those of cocaine and that cocaine was an increasingly popular drug.

As for crack cocaine, Lewman said, “We’ll probably have more of these deaths next year.”

Portland Police Bureau figures from the first six months in 1987 and 1988 parallel the upward trend of cocaine and methamphetamine use and the decrease in heroin use.

During the first six months of this year, for example, Portland police seized 306.15 grams of crack — a 133 percent increase over the 131.38 grams taken in the same period in 1987. Dollar value this year was $24,245 vs. $12,880 last year.

Crack is a generally less-expensive form of cocaine, which contributes to its popularity. One gram is 0.035 of an ounce.

In 1988, through June, police seized 7,081.52 grams of all other forms of cocaine — a 44 percent increase over 4,916.69 grams through June 1987. Dollar value so far this year is $530,105 vs. $446,960 last year.

Police took in 2,110 grams of methamphetamine during the first six months of this year — an 805 percent increase over 233.01 grams confiscated in the same period last year.

In contrast, seizures of heroin in the first half of 1988 amounted to 177.23 grams — a 77 percent drop from 765.37 in the first half of 1987. Dollar value this year so far is $45,690 vs. $211,876 last year.

The Police Bureau’s Brooks cautioned that drug seizure figures are “a better indicator of police activity than . . . user activity.”

He said Portland police increasingly were seizing large quantities of precursor chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamine. In August, for example, police seized $23,000 worth of chemicals and no methamphetamine.

That indicates police are cutting off illicit drug-making operations before the finished product can hit the streets, Brooks said.

The rate of cocaine confiscations by the Multnomah County Multi-Agency Drug Unit nearly doubled from 1986 to 1987, said Jim Davis, spokesman for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department. At the same time, seizures of heroin and methamphetamine dropped. The unit includes the Multnomah County sheriff’s department, Gresham Police Department and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

In 1987 the unit seized 20,222 grams of cocaine, 278 grams of heroin and 3,522 grams of methamphetamine, Davis said. The previous year, the unit confiscated 11,114 grams of cocaine, 2,199 grams of heroin and 7,786 grams of methamphetamine.

The street value of all drugs seized by the drug unit in 1987 was $5,143,385 — a 35 percent increase over the $3,793,980 in drugs seized in 1986.