FINDING HOPE: Opioid abuse, arrests on the rise in Idaho

The state of Idaho isn't able to escape the opioid epidemic wreaking havoc on states across the country.

The number of deadly overdoses, arrests, and drugs seized off Idaho's highways -- are all on the rise. 

While some drug users are getting high on prescription painkillers picked up at their local pharmacy, many others are turning to heroin. And as we found out, most of that is coming from Utah.

"Every single day someone's tripping to Utah and bringing back heroin," Lt. Clint Skinner with ISP District 5 in Pocatello said. "Five years ago we were seeing almost none, and now it's the biggest problem we're seeing in southeast Idaho."

While the amount of drugs in a person's possession varies, ISP K-9 handler Cpl. Tyler Scheierman says the frequency of drug-related investigations is on the rise.

"We can see anything from users with the tiniest amounts, to the traffickers that have ounces and up to pounds of [heroin]," Cpl. Scheierman said.

In a law enforcement district that once heavily focused on methamphetamine possession and trafficking, officers are changing with the times shifting their focus to heroin.

"It started a couple of years ago with small quantity stuff, it started with 'points' which is a tenth of a gram - and now it's moved on past that into grams and ounces and we've seen a couple different cases where people are bringing in a half pound to a pound at a time," Lt. Skinner said.

From 2011 to 2016, state police saw a 958% increase in the number of heroin-positive items tested by state labs - the highest amounts coming from Ada County.

"We're dealing with several of these instances every week," Meridian Police officer Jake Simon said. "Out of my last six evaluations, four of those have come up with some kind of opiate in their system."

Most of the heroin making its way to the Gem State is being trafficked in from Salt Lake City - a major drug hub where opiates can be purchased at a much lower cost.

ISP officials say someone can buy a gram of heroin in Salt Lake City for about $50, drive it back into Idaho, and sell it for at least three times that amount.

"If they trip to Salt Lake City, they can buy heroin for around $900 an ounce, and then they can sell that here in Pocatello for at least $1,500-$1,600 an ounce," Lt. Skinner said. "Two hours each way, so four hours round trip, and they can double their money."

When it comes to heroin trafficking - that's anything more than two grams - the number of state lab cases more than doubled between 2015 and 2016. Canyon County saw the highest rate increase, but falls fourth in the state behind Ada, Bannock and Kootenai counties.

"We don't have the people, the money, or the manpower to work all the heroin cases that we could work," Lt. Skinner said.

But Idaho officers say their opioid problems don't end with heroin. According to the CDC, for every 100 people in the Gem State, there are 86 painkiller prescriptions.

"I know it's prescription medication, but people are obtaining these for illicit use - basically using it to get high and not in accordance to a prescription," Officer Simon with Meridian Police said. "Most of the time they're not even prescribed the medication."

CDC officials say 46 people die from prescription painkiller overdoses each day in the United States. As a result, many law enforcement agencies are now arming their officers with Narcan - a nasal spray that counteracts the life-threatening effects of an opioid overdose.

"We're seeing mostly young 18-25-year-old kids, and we're having a significant number of overdoses and deaths resulting from heroin and opiates," Lt. Skinner said.

Meridian Police Officer Jake Simon says he personally sees many of those users then take the wheel.

"It is scary to think of the amount of impairment I can see on someone on heroin, or on a heavy dose of an opiate," Officer Simon said. "It's scary to think that they would get behind the wheel of a 3-4-5-6-thousand pound vehicle and drive down the road."

Impacts to the public stretch far beyond the scope of road safety, also leading to an uptick in crime.

"Either through a petit theft, a minor theft situation, or even vehicle burglaries - they're using these types of situations to fund their habit," Officer Simon said. "They're addicted to the substance, and they need money to buy it, and they're basically stealing other people's property to help fund that."

In Idaho, heroin also carries mandatory minimum sentences. That means if you're caught with more than two grams in your possession, you'll face at least three years in prison and a minimum $10,000 fine. Depending on the amount in possession, offenders could face up to life in prison.

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