Crime & Courts

While meth is still king, dangerous opioid drugs are on the rise, KBI agents say

Around two years ago, Doug Younger ordered his undercover agents to hit the streets and buy some heroin.

It took awhile to find some.

But it’s easy now, says Younger, special agent in charge with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

He was mentioning that one example to help illustrate how opioids are a growing problem in Kansas, a problem that doesn’t always get counted in statistics. Younger and his agents know that opioids are an increasing threat because of what they see and hear during their investigations.

In Kansas, heroin is far more prevalent in urban areas, but is “moving to the smaller communities, and some of the smaller communities have it because they know somebody in the bigger city,” Younger said.

Another example: From 2012 to 2017, KBI labs saw a 615 percent increase in heroin samples being submitted and a 250 percent rise in fentanyl. “We had almost nothing in 2012,” he noted.

Methamphetamine, the illegal and addictive stimulant, is still king in Kansas for its share of the illegal-drug-use pie. Meth is still cheaper and more prevalent than heroin. But opioids are the up-and-coming threat, Younger said.

“The opioid epidemic is still knocking on our doors.”

Younger and KBI Special Agent Nick Pipkin voiced their assessment to an Eagle reporter this week when they were in Wichita for the Kansas Opioid Summit, described as a “proactive effort by multiple professional disciplines, to educate and build consistent response to the opioid crisis in Kansas.”

Opioids are addictive drugs that can lead to fatal overdoses, and they include the illegal drug heroin, fentanyl and legal prescription painkillers like oxycodone that can be abused or sold illegally.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration describes fentanyl as “a synthetic opioid that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine.”

Fentanyl can be added to heroin to boost the potency, and it can be disguised as heroin. “Many users believe that they are purchasing heroin and actually don’t know that they are purchasing fentanyl — which often results in overdose deaths,” the DEA says.

Most heroin or fentanyl users first become addicted to prescription opioids, Younger said. They turn to heroin or fentanyl because it is less expensive and easier to get.

Opioid prices vary. A prescription pill with a higher dosage might sell for up to $80, Younger said.

Younger cited these prices for heroin in northeast Kansas: about $100 for a gram, $1,200 to 1,300 for an ounce, $30,000 for a pound and $45,000 to $60,000 for a kilogram, which is about 2.2 pounds. In south-central Kansas, the prices would be somewhat higher.

Price-wise, he said, “It’s a rich person’s drug.”

So, Younger said, a heroin addict who can’t afford it will shoplift, steal and burglarize to pay for it — “one hit at a time.” A half gram here, a half gram there.

Although heroin can be smoked, it’s usually injected, just about anywhere on the body.

“They will hit blood vessels between their toes,” Younger said, or the neck “if they can’t find a vein.”

“After awhile, your veins in your arms are going to just collapse.”

Comparable statistics can be misleading, Younger said, because they show that Kansas is far down the list of the states with the most serious opioid problem.

Most heroin in Kansas gets funneled through Mexico, Pipkin said. Much of the heroin comes from poppies grown in Afghanistan. Mexico has a smaller share of poppy fields. Heroin is made from oil extracted from the flower.

Pipkin and Younger say they view heroin as the new profitable drug for drug cartels partly because of marijuana legalization in some states.

“They’re losing money in marijuana,” Younger said, and turning more to heroin to profit.

Tim Potter has covered crime and safety for The Eagle for more than 20 years. His focus is the story behind the story and government accountability. He can be reached at 316-268-6684.