Unraveling a heroin dilemma

In Features on April 21, 2015 at 12:35 pm

In the dirty bathroom of a mobile home, a”junkie” shoots up. | Photo by Alex Ashley

Part I: ‘The nature of the beast’

The Snohomish Regional Drug and Gang Task Force works daily to find the root of a drug epidemic in the county

By Alex Ashley

The woman’s voice was hoarse over the phone, the kind you get when you live the sort of life she had for 47 years: a path of heartache, crime and drug abuse.

She requested anonymity, so her name has been withheld.

Her lapse into drugs didn’t happen as the result of peer pressure or mischievous, youthful curiosity; for her there was no slow descent.

She remembers plummeting when, in 1996, her mother’s boyfriend raped her.

“That’s what got me into meth and brown (heroin),” she said. “I wanted to stay awake so that would never happen to me again.”

From then on, her life – in tiny little pieces, one after another – began to fragment, splinter and fall apart.  Months, she said, turned into years.  Drugs led to burglary and motor vehicle theft.  Every decision she made was for one reason: to get dope.

Eventually, she married a man – a user himself – but when the beatings started, she left him. Shortly after that, in 1999, she went to prison on 14 counts of check fraud.

Brown clowns

“It’s the worst thing, but actually the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said.  “But when you go to prison, the feeling you go through is (expletive) up.”

She described the experience simply: “Lonely.  Scared.  Sad.”

Her mother died of pancreatic cancer 20 days after she arrived in prison.

And then one day, three years later– Sept. 21, 2001, to be exact – she found herself standing on the street, a free woman.

“I remembered thinking ‘freedom,’ and it was scary, because I had been away from it for too long.”

Her father died 20 days after her release.

She never touched heroin – “the brown” – again, but said she can spot a heroin addict in a crowd with her naked eye.

She calls them “brown clowns.”

“The sad part is,” she said, “a lot of them say they want off of it, but they just can’t.”

Today, she works as a confidential informant for the Snohomish Regional Drug and Gang Task Force, helping to level the playing field for law enforcement trying to crack down on the enigmatic world of heroin buying, selling and trafficking in the county.

She can list at least two dozen heroin dealers by name, from small-time to major, in Stanwood and Camano Island alone, she said.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown said that kind of drug use is what is fueling much of the property crime in Camano Island.

“I get this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach,” he said, “that drugs are just becoming accepted, almost as part of the culture around here.”

Brown said he has responded by creating what he calls a “mini task force” of three officers specifically devoted to investigating substance abuse crimes on Camano and Whidbey islands.

An addict prepares to inject heroin into his veins with a hypodermic needle.  |  Photo by Alex Ashley

An addict prepares to inject heroin into his veins with a hypodermic needle. | Photo by Alex Ashley

“The heroin is off the hook here,” the woman said, “and even the kids are into it.”

She said her 51-year-old roommate is “a junkie,” and that the things she has seen – the ins and outs of the dark, murky world of heroin – are enough to make her physically sick: young girls selling themselves just to get their next hit.

“And we’re talking young,” she said, followed by somber silence.

Jean Shumate, Ed.D, superintendent of Stanwood-Camano School District, said as they look at their district data, they have not had any disciplinary matters related to heroin use for the past three years.

Still, the woman who asked not to be identified said she knows of at least two girls attending Stanwood High School who are using.

“Anything that threatens the health, safety and well-being of our students concerns me deeply,” Shumate said.  “Our district will continue to be vigilant regarding all issues that threaten our students.”

Data from a recent Healthy Youth Survey by the Washington State Department of Health paints the same picture: of the Snohomish County high school seniors who participated in the survey, 5.7 percent said they had used heroin at least once, which exceeds the survey’s statewide average of 3.2 percent.

As well, 3.6 percent of 10th grade students, and 2.8 percent of eighth grade students admitted the same.

A January report by Snohomish Health District entitled “Heroin in Snohomish County: Mortality and Treatment Trends,” noted that one out of every five heroin-related deaths in the entire state occurred in Snohomish County.

‘They knew the train was coming’

Cmdr. Pat Slack, 69, a 47-year veteran of law enforcement, has manned the helm of the Snohomish Regional Drug and Gang Task Force, for which the woman quoted earlier is a confidential informant, for the past 16 years.

Slack, with messy, grey hair and a mustache and the weathered face of a man who has seen a lot, peers out from behind a pair of wire-rim spectacles.

He is kind and accommodating, but authoritative.

“It doesn’t make a (expletive) what the drug is as long as the demand is there,” he said.  “I’ve worked with a lot of people.  A lot of them are dead today.  They wouldn’t make the right decisions.  Addiction is a horrible, powerful thing.  They knew the train was coming, they just didn’t know when.”

The task force represents all 725,000 people living in Snohomish County, and each law enforcement agency is a signature on it.

His job is to determine the biggest threat to the community and address it, whether it stems from Darrington, Woodway, Brier, Stanwood or downtown Everett.

“We drive 750,000 miles a year,” he said, “(the road) is where our life is.”

Slack never even wanted to be a cop.

“But then I went to Vietnam,” he said.  “I got drafted, went there, came back, and people in the community hated us.  We couldn’t wear our uniforms, we couldn’t get a job and people badgered us.  Called us murderers and rapists…”

As a young man back from the war, Slack didn’t have a lot to his name.  He had a wife, but no home, and they were expecting their first child.

“So here I am,” he said.  “I’m 23 years old, I’ve been to Vietnam, on the frontlines, infantryman, have killed people…and I had to make my first adult decision…I had to do what was best for my family.”

In the same month his first daughter was born, January 1970, Slack started his career as a police officer.

Slack recalled an experience with heroin from his early years in law enforcement, working undercover.

“1974, downtown Tacoma,” he said.  “I was buying three ounces of heroin.  It was the last buy.  I was in an apartment house, and I went up and knocked on the door; I’d been there before.  I was going to buy the dope and walk out and we were going to arrest the guy.  The door opened behind me, and a guy put a .45 revolver to my chest and pulled the trigger three times.”

The gun misfired, but he’ll never forget it.

Pat Slack, 69, is a 47-year veteran of law enforcement, and commander of the Snohomish Regional Drug and Gang Task Force.

Pat Slack, 69, is a 47-year veteran of law enforcement, and commander of the Snohomish Regional Drug and Gang Task Force.  |  Photo by Alex Ashley

Forty-one years later, though, Slack said he still can’t wrap his mind around exactly what to call the heroin problem here.

“People throw around the word ‘epidemic,’” he said, “and that doesn’t even cover it.  Not even close.  It’s bad.”

Slack said some images are permanently burned into his memory, images of people and places he’s encountered while trying to tackle the heroin dilemma.

He calls it “the nature of the beast.”

“The houses we go into, and the people and the living conditions they’re in,” he said.

He paused, and his gaze shifted into the background.  “It’s unbelievable.”

The complications of justice

At the same time, Slack said bureaucracy can, to some degree, tie an officer’s hands when they’re trying to make a dent in the heroin epidemic.

He remembers being a young cop in the 1970s, and being told by a couple of detectives that Miranda rights were a thing of the past because they inhibited police work.

“Look at the Gant decision, look at the Ferrier decision, look at the Miranda decision,” he said, referring to several legal precedents passed down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Arizona vs. Gant, for example, held that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires law enforcement officers to demonstrate an ongoing threat to their safety, or a need to preserve evidence related to the crime of arrest.

In other words, an officer cannot pull a known junkie over for a busted taillight, and then search the vehicle in hopes to find drugs.

“People say ‘hell, the criminals have more rights than I do.’ But that’s not true.  It’s just that these decisions don’t affect the daily lives of average people, in general, unless they’re criminals.”

Of the more than 140 opioid-related deaths in Snohomish County from 2011 to 2013, most have been the result of a heroin overdose.  And even though many of those deaths are recorded as “morphine” or “other opioids,” analyses conducted by the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington found in 84 percent of such cases that “morphine” and “other” actually meant heroin.

“Opiate addiction (in Snohomish County),” said Slack, “is by far the worst thing we’ve seen.  It attacks all ages, and it doesn’t care who you are.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: