Greenville Police, Doctors, Counselors: Pain Pill Abuse Skyrocketing, Leading To More Heroin Use

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Greenville Police say the number of heroin arrests increased from 31 in 2011 to 56 last year. Greenville police say heroin is replacing crack and cocaine as the popular street drug. Doctors and drug counselors in the east say it's resurgence is directly connected to skyrocketing addiction to prescription pills. PORT Human Services serves people across eastern North Carolina for drug addiction, and says in the past year (April 2012-April 2013) it's had 860 new cases of opioid addiction which includes pain killers and heroin.

A 50-year-old Greenville man who wanted to remain anonymous spoke to WITN while attending group therapy at PORT Human Services about his battle with pain pill addiction.

"I found myself heading downtown to find a heroin dealer because I was in so much physical pain that I knew that was the next step, and thankfully I turned my car around and went home and a week later I went into rehab."

He says his addiction to prescription pills began 8 years ago when his mother died and an acquaintance told him to take a pill to take away the pain. A pill that was not prescribed for him.

"I was introduced to oxycontin and really didn't realize what I was dealing with until I was addicted to it."

His story is the same as hundreds of people across the east who get the pills legally or illegally off the street or from someone else's medicine cabinet. Some move on to heroin to get the same high when they can't find pills anymore.

Monica Shamdasani, a counselor at PORT Human Services in Greenville, says 95% of her clients are addicted to prescription pills.

"Opiates, pain medications, percocets, oxycontins, opanas, even methadone that they are buying off the street. It's for pain relief and then they realize it gives them euphoria and this gives me energy and this feels good. I don't have to worry so much, and you can quickly develop a physical dependence on those medications," said Shamdasani.

She says she's seeing more college-age people addicted to pills and heroin.

"Lately the average age has been 18-24 that I've seen," said Shamdasani.

We spoke to an undercover Greenville officer who says he's seeing the same thing with heroin more widely accepted by people of all walks of life.

"Now it's almost like these younger people are accepting that, 'Hey I use heroin, and hey- it's whatever.' It's definitely become a problem that the Police department is combating on a an everyday basis."

The undercover officer says he's seen an increase in heroin the last year and a half on Greenville streets. You can snort heroin, and with no needle marks some professionals and college students are more willing to try it.

"Arrests have been made from college students to people in suits and ties," said the officer.

So far this year, there have been 17 heroin arrests in Greenville and 8 more arrests involving pain killers. Just in the month of April, 21 people were arrested for a prescription pill operation based out of New Bern, and in Greenville, police say a Fayetteville drug dealer was arrested with 450 bags of heroin near Myrtle Avenue and 14th Street. In January, 4 people were arrested on heroin charges at Copper Beach apartments, a complex popular with ECU students.

Police say heroin dealers are coming to Greenville, and the South in general, because they can sell the drug for three times what it sells for up north. Even so, it's cheaper than prescription pills. One dose is about $15- $20. Greenville police tell us 50 doses, which is called a brick, sells for about $500 in Greenville. A brick would sell for about $150 in New Jersey.

The heroin high is shorter, only 3-4 hours, and people are stealing and turning to crime to get their fix that can be deadly.

"I've seen as many as 5 overdoses in one afternoon," Vidant Medical Center Emergency Room Doctor William Meggs told us.

After 25 years at Vidant Medical center in Greenville, Dr. Meggs says he's never seen so many heroin cases related to prescription pill abuse. People also arrive at the E.R. trying to get off heroin.

"They feel like they're dying," said Dr. Meggs.

The man we spoke to at PORT Human Services in Greenville can relate. He went cold turkey once.

"I had 60 days of cramps. They would come across my skull. I didn't even realize I had muscles across my skull until they started bringing on migraines. A lot of people have nausea, vomiting, and it's a painful experience."

There is a treatment designed for people trying to quit prescription pills without the painful side effects called suboxone- a tablet or film you put under your tongue.

"Most clients just say I feel normal and I haven't felt this in a long time," said Shamdasani. "So they get to go back to work. They get to be that parent."

"It is so nice to feel free to feel free and not have to worry about where the next one's coming from cause that truly is more painfuil than the withdrawal is wondering where you're going to get the next one," said the man we met in recovery from pain pills.

Law enforcement says pill drop off programs have helped purge some of these drugs out of people's homes, and doctors and pharmacies have systems to red flag people who are considered doctor shoppers. A federal database is in the works to track people crossing state lines to buy pills.

If you or someone you know is addicted to pain pills or heroin, there is help all over the east. Click on the link below or call the PORT Crisis hotline at 866-488-7678.