Drug Deaths on Rise in Oregon

From The Oregonian – November 8, 1999. Not available elsewhere online.

Drug-related deaths in Oregon are up 28 percent from last year and continue on pace to set a new record, according to third-quarter statistics that will be released today.

In the first nine months of 1999, 206 people died from drug-related causes, compared with 161 people in the same period last year.

The deaths continue an alarming upward trend that began in 1991, said Dr. Karen L. Gunson, state medical examiner. She predicts that more than 300 people will die this year in Oregon from drug-related causes.

“This is a message to the people who would legalize drugs: It’s not harmless,” said John Horton, a Multnomah County deputy district attorney who prosecutes drug cases. “People really are dying.”

Heroin continues to be the leading cause of drug-related deaths, with 163 through September, a 34 percent increase from last year.

The main culprit is black tar heroin, which is imported to Oregon from Mexico, said Mike Kuhlman, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s district office in Portland.

He said the drug’s use is on the rise, especially in Eugene, Salem and Portland. And some of what is landing in Oregon is stronger than in the past because it’s not being cut as much, possibly contributing to the death rate, he said.

“It appears that it’s not changing hands as often as it otherwise would,” Kuhlman said.

But heroin is not the only problem. Third-quarter cocaine- and methamphetamine-related deaths also are up, as are deaths caused by a combination of more than one drug.

Fifty-nine people died from cocaine-related causes, an increase of 38 percent from the same period last year. And meth-related deaths jumped 29 percent to 40. Drugs used in combination caused 49 deaths, up 29 percent.

Law enforcement officials continue to point to methamphetamine as one of the most dangerous drugs because it’s easily manufactured locally, causes severe health problems for users and leads to an increase in street crimes by users who must feed their habit.

Methamphetamine use has increased since 1994, said Sgt. Larry Welty, who works drug enforcement for the Oregon State Police. He said the number of meth labs busted in Oregon is at an all-time high. Last year, 270 were shut down in the state, and Welty predicts that will top 300 in 1999.

Welty thinks one factor in the high death rate is the varying quality of the drugs reaching the street. “It’s not like you’re getting drugs from a pharmacy,” he said. “Some batches coming in are really strong, or they have impurities that make people sick.”

Horton said he’s noticed an increase in the number of young people facing drug charges. He surmises that police are doing a better job arresting people for drug offenses, but he also said more people are doing drugs.