Opioid Addiction and Arrest Rates in New Mexico Alarmingly High

In 2016, 21.2 percent of drug seizures were heroin related, according to the NMDOH. Some users crush prescription pills into powder, injecting intravenously. Photo by Maya Holt / NM News Port

New Mexico is in the grip of a statewide opioid epidemic.

New Mexico drug overdose deaths involving opioids have nearly quadrupled since 1999, according to the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH).

In the last five years, over 2400 people died from drug overdoses attributed to prescription painkillers like opioids that transfer to heroin use.

According to drugpolicy.org, the number of overdose deaths involving opioid pain relievers or heroin in New Mexico has nearly doubled from 10 years ago.

There has been a recent trend of opioid painkiller users switching over to heroin, because of the similar narcotic effect and because of cheap, easy access. According to The National Institute of Drug Use, the number of people in the United States who said they used heroin in the past year nearly doubled. Unfortunately heroin is also similar to opioids in that it, too, is heavily addictive.

Heroin is one of the most commonly abused drugs in New Mexico, the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) reports. This is due to easy access and abundance. Albuquerque is considered a transshipment point for Mexican black tar and brown powdered heroin, primarily destined for the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest, according to the NDIC.

Pharmaceutical companies issue prescription opioids, but users are switching to heroin due to the price and accessibility. A prescription pill gondola is used for organizing and dispensing medication at pharmacies. Photo by Maya Holt / NM News Port

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported that in the last two years (Feb. 2015-Feb 2017) they arrested 133 people for heroin trafficking and 38 people for pharmaceutical trafficking in the state of New Mexico.  During that same time, they seized 136 kilograms of heroin and 11,000 dosage units of pharmaceuticals.

Sean Waite, Associate Special Agent in Charge at the DEA Albuquerque branch, said it is hard measuring what drug-related crimes are tied to specific drugs. The data surrounding trafficking keeps specifics, but everything else is simply classified as a drug-related crime.

“If someone steals a car, and they get pulled over, and they are also high on heroin or methamphetamine or any other substance, that makes it a drug related crime,” Waite said. “But police won’t say it is a meth crime, just a drug crime.”

The New Mexico Pharmacists Association (NMPA) has introduced new regulations and training requirements in order to try and solve this problem. The NMPA now requires all pharmacists undergo least 30 hours of continuing education over two year spans. The state government is also making sure doctors take the right steps when prescribing opioid pills.

“My classes have taught us about over-prescribing in our state,” said Elias Romero, a pharmacy school student at UNM. “The state wants to make sure that when we graduate, we know of all the procedures to prevent people coming to different clinics for the same prescription.”

New Mexico is working to fix the problem with illegal and legal opioid addictions. An announcement made by the NMDOH said that nearly two-thirds of New Mexico counties saw a decline in overdose deaths last year, even though it is still high. NMDOH also reported a 9 percent decrease in statewide overdose deaths.

Follow Maya and Kris on Twitter