Heroin use and fatal overdoses are on the rise across the U.S., especially among young adults and poor people, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says in a report released this week. Meanwhile, in New Mexico, where drug overdoses have been a chronic problem, preliminary data indicate that after a two-year reprieve, overdose deaths spiked in 2014.

The CDC analyzed vital statistics and results of a national survey on health and drug use to conclude that heroin-related overdose deaths across the country surged by a startling 286 percent between 2002 and 2013. At the same time, heroin use has been the rise among most demographic groups, with use of the drug among adults ages 18 to 25 more than doubling.

State Department of Health spokesman Kenny Vigil told The New Mexican in an emailed statement Friday that preliminary data on drug overdose deaths in New Mexico in 2014 show “a substantial increase.” However, he said, the exact number isn’t final.

Nationwide findings

Addiction experts say progress combating high rates of addiction and overdose deaths in New Mexico remains hindered by a lack of effective treatment options. Harris Silver, a retired physician who co-chairs the Bernalillo County Opioid Accountability Initiative, said increases in heroin use are directly related to rising rates of prescription opioid painkillers.

Heroin is cheaper than prescription painkillers on the black market, Silver said, as well as readily available and very potent. “That’s the case nationally, but it’s happening here in a bad way,” he said. “Education is the good thing that we’re doing, but we’re not getting people treated for opioid use disorder they’ve developed while they’re using.”

According to Department of Health data, prescription opioids accounted for the largest share of overall drug overdose deaths in New Mexico since 2006. Drug overdose deaths were consistently below 20 percent until that year, which also saw a steady rise in the number of prescriptions for opioid pain relievers. In 2007, the number of deaths from prescription overdoses overtook those associated with heroin and other illegal drugs, and by 2011, the CDC ranked New Mexico among U.S. states with the highest total rates of drug overdose deaths.

One tool to increase patient safety around prescription opioids is the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program, which allows prescribers and pharmacists to check patients’ prescription histories. Vigil said that “licensing boards require health care providers who prescribe drugs such as opioids to check the Prescription Monitoring Program for high-risk patients and provide training on safe prescribing and monitoring program use.”

The initiative has helped, Silver said, “but the problem is that you get unintended consequences. When doctor-shoppers, overusers and misusers are detected, they get cut off. And instead of having their addiction treated as a disease that the provider might have even caused, the user resorts to using to heroin.”

The state’s other main initiative for preventing opioid drug overdoses is based on increasing access to naloxone, commonly known as Narcan. The drug can be administered as a nasal spray to reverse the effects of opioid overdose.

Vigil said the Department of Health has worked with the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office and a New Mexico State Police district to train officers in administering naloxone if they’re first on the scene of a possible drug overdose. The Health Department also works closely with the Board of Pharmacy, Vigil said, and now pharmacists are able to prescribe naloxone. “Pharmacies are allowed to stock it,” he said, “but only about 10 percent are doing that now.”

The director of The University of New Mexico’s Center on Alcohol, Substance Abuse and Addictions, Barbara McCrady, praised the state’s program. “It saves people’s lives,” McCrady said, “and we’ve been ahead of the curve on that compared to other states.”

Yet McCrady and Silver said the most essential weapons in New Mexico’s arsenal against opioid addiction — effective treatment options — are scarce and difficult to access. That dearth of resources comes at a price we all pay, Silver said. He cited data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration that estimated every public dollar spent on treatment saves $12, diverting funds that otherwise would be spent on criminal justice and medical aid.

Santa Fe police Capt. Jerome Sanchez has seen firsthand how untreated addictions can spiral out of control at a high social cost. In 2011, he worked in the city’s Property Crimes Unit, the same year he began to notice a disturbing trend. “Burglaries, auto theft, shoplifting, they were all going through the roof. And every single person we arrested that year for those crimes was an addict.”

Sanchez said when he and other officers in the unit debriefed the suspects, “They’d tell us, ‘If you don’t put me in treatment, this is going to continue.’ They’d beg for help.”

Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales said the city is lucky to have a number of resources in place to help people who are ready to move into a substance abuse program, but increasing the level of substance abuse resources is key to helping other places cope. “Our current way of addressing addiction is not working,” he said. “This is a health issue that needs to be addressed, not a criminal issue, and the sooner we as a country realize that, the better off we’ll all be.”

Gonzales said he hopes outcomes from the city’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, otherwise known as LEAD, will help create a shift in the mindset of state policymakers. Instead of forcing minor criminal offenders into the criminal justice system, LEAD provides them with an opportunity to access services, such as addiction treatment, counseling and housing aid.

While it’s still too early to hold up hard data on the program’s outcomes, Sanchez said, anecdotal evidence he has received from participants and officers indicate it’s a success. Of the 38 people currently participating, none has been rearrested.

“We’re not going to rid the community of drugs and addiction, but we can really reduce it,” he said. “We can save lives. We can save taxpayer money and really get officers back on the street to handle other priorities rather than arresting a guy with a [heroin] rig and charging him with a felony. It frees up the criminal justice system for more serious cases.”

Contact Margaret Wright at 986-3011 or mwright@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @MargaretWrite.