While the number of heroin-related arrests in San Juan County has grown in the past three years, meth is still more prevalent in northwest New Mexico

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FARMINGTON — Local public health officials are fighting a growing opiate epidemic as lawmakers in Congress debate how to fund the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act, a bipartisan bill passed in July that would strengthen prevention, treatment and recovery efforts nationwide.

The U.S. saw a four-fold increase in heroin-related overdose deaths between 2002 and 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New Mexico has the second-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country, second only to West Virginia, the CDC states, and 61 percent of those deaths resulted from an opiate, which includes heroin.

A rise in heroin use has paralleled an increase in the prescribing of opiate medication to treat chronic pain, which the CDC says is contributing to the current epidemic.

Though the number of heroin-related arrests in San Juan County has grown in the past three years, methamphetamine remains the drug of choice in northwest New Mexico. And the meth problem appears to have significantly worsened in the past three years. Officials say opioid treatment efforts can be expanded to deal with other substance addictions.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, spoke with reporters Tuesday in a media conference call about the need for federal funding to address opiate addiction, a "serious issue that is tearing apart the fabric of our communities."

In May, Luján introduced the Opioid and Heroin Abuse Crisis Investment Act, which would authorize the expenditure of $1.2 billion over the next two years to combat heroin and prescription pill abuse.

The bill was co-sponsored by 90 Democratic House members, but it died in a subcommittee not long after it was introduced.

Luján said Tuesday that congressional Republicans have stymied efforts to secure funding for the issue. Republicans have said funding should be addressed in the appropriations process.

Rep. Steve Pearce, R-New Mexico, said in an emailed statement that signing the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act, or CARA, into law was significant for states such as New Mexico.

"For too long, drug abuse has plagued our communities, and it is time to put forward solutions that can help people affected by addiction," Pearce said. "The bill passed by the House, Senate, and signed into law ensures Americans struggling with drug abuse have access to important resources in their local communities."

Pearce did not answer questions on how Congress would fund the bill.

San Juan County reported 111 overdose deaths from 2010 to 2014, a rate of about 18.2 deaths per 100,000 residents. New Mexico reported 2,464 overdose deaths in that same period, a rate of 24.3 deaths per 100,000 residents.

Sgt. Kevin Burns of the Region II Narcotics Task Force provided statistics that indicate the number of meth arrests more than doubled between 2013 to 2015, from 143 cases to 310 cases in 2015.

So far, there have been 157 meth arrests in 2016.

Meanwhile, the agency has reported only 110 heroin cases in the past three years.

Dr. Michael Botticelli, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, joined Luján in Tuesday's media conference call.

Botticelli said that although funding from CARA would be focused on opiate treatment, the funding would expand the nation's rehabilitation infrastructure and improve awareness of the need for treatment, which would also help in meth treatment.

"I have been doing this work for a very long time, and I want to make sure that we are treating the spectrum of drug issues," Botticelli said.

Burns said the sharp increase in meth arrests was due in part to a significant drop in the price of the illicit stimulant, which is increasingly manufactured in Mexico and smuggled into the United States.

"Right now, you can get a pound for $3,000 to $5,000," Burns said. "Five years ago, it was nearly double that."

Burns cautioned that the arrest numbers reflect only the individuals who are caught, and heroin use is a growing problem.

Dr. Eric Ketcham of the San Juan Regional Medical Center has said he became aware of the opiate epidemic in 2009 when the hospital's emergency room began to see an increase in the number of opiate-dependent patients requesting narcotics.

In March, he became the medical director of New Mexico Treatment Services, a Farmington-based methadone and buprenorphine clinic.

Ketcham said the clinic currently treats 75 patients, about three-fourths of whom primarily used heroin before treatment. He said the majority of patients first used opiate medication, but then developed a habit and turned to heroin, which is cheaper and more easily accessible.

"Many of our patients have been dependent on opiates for years," he said. "Some started right away with heroin. Many started very young, when they were teenagers, and it was provided by friends and family members."

Ketcham said several people admitted into the clinic since it opened two years ago have managed to quit opiates, and many more have managed to maintain stable home environments and find work while in rehabilitation.

"Once our patients are in treatment, they are back in school, they are back to work, they are not committing crimes, and they are healing with their families," Ketcham said. "It really is amazing."

Brian Goodlett is program director of the treatment center, which also has offices in Albuquerque, Española and Santa Fe.

He said he sees more patients in San Juan County who use meth in combination with heroin, but otherwise addiction affects the community in the same way.

"The thing that I always point out to people: we have this preconceived notion of what an opiate addict looks like, but the truth is the disease of addiction does not discriminate," Goodlett said. "I have seen people from all walks of life, all incomes."

Both men said meth addiction was more difficult to treat than heroin. Unlike heroin, there is no drug replacement, like methadone or bupenorphine, that patients can receive while in treatment.

Goodlett and Ketcham both said they supported federal funding for CARA. Ketcham said the cost of treatment medication is high, and many patients do not have access to adequate care.

New Mexico Treatment Services is the only methadone clinic in San Juan County, and buprenorphine must be administered by a trained physician.

"For every one dollar you invest in effective addiction treatment, it pays itself back seven times in the savings to society, in reduced health care costs and the cost of repeated incarceration," Ketcham said.

New Mexico Treatment Services is located at 607 E. Apache St. Individuals seeking treatment can contact the clinic's hotline 24 hours a day at 505-360-6032.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644. 

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