Heroin overdose deaths on the rise in Washington

SEATTLE -- Heroin overdose deaths are on the rise in our state, and soon-to-be released numbers from the University of Washington show the most dramatic increase is coming from people under the age of 30.

Veteran drug users say it takes experience to manage a heroin habit without killing yourself. But now, inexperienced users and inconsistent quality may be leading to more overdose deaths throughout the state.

"We had 49 heroin deaths in 2009, and that increased to 84 in 2012, and all of that increase was people under the age of 30, which is quite young from people dying of heroin," said Dr. Caleb Banta-Green with the UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

It's the same story on the streets.

"Now we have young 16-, 17-, 18-. 19-year old injectors, like the suburbs have been a massive increase in our service," said Shiloh Murphy.

Murphy runs the People's Harm Reduction Alliance, a needle exchange program in the alleys of the University District.

One reason for the increase in overdose deaths is the inconsistency of heroin on the streets, according to Murphy.

Three different strengths of the drug are confusing inexperienced and younger users who may think it's all the same. That inexperience is leading to overdoses.

"We are also seeing big increases in treatment admissions, particularly for young adults," Murphy said.

Experts say there's another reason for the spike in overdoses, and it has nothing to do with heroin itself.

Researchers have seen a dramatic drop in overdoes from the prescription drug Oxycontin -- an opiate like heroin -- even since its maker changed the formula to prevent users from injecting or snorting the crushed up pills.

Murphy said frustrated Oxycontin users are turning to heroin to get a better high.

"What it did is create a generation of young people shooting street heroin. We've had a massive increase in folks coming to our program," Murphy said.

Murphy's group offers free Narcon, which has proven to save lives if taken within an hour of an overdose.

The good Samaritan law protects drug users from getting into trouble if they report someone who's dying from a drug overdose. Experts say it's a call that could save someone's life.