A spike in heroin use at the South Shore has led to more than a death a month in the past year and a half.
Nineteen heroin overdose deaths have been recorded in the past 18 months on the California side of the South Shore, said Jeff Catchings, task force commander for the South Lake El Dorado Narcotics Enforcement Team Task Force. The number of deaths is conservative, with the last confirmed heroin overdose recorded April 11, Catchings added.
Over roughly the same time frame, the number of people seeking treatment for heroin addiction has exploded, said Richard Barna, executive director at Tahoe Turning Point, which provides addiction counseling and group home services.
"Sixteen months ago we had two. Now we have 20," Barna said.
"It's incredible, the influx of heroin that's been going on, and I don't have a reason why," Barna said.
The majority of heroin, a dangerous opiate, being used at Lake Tahoe is black tar heroin from Mexico, Catchings said. South Lake Tahoe sits in the drug supply chain between Stockton and Reno, according to the narcotics officer.
The South Shore is not alone in the surge in heroin use. Purity has increased, price has decreased and heroin overdoses have risen across the country in recent years, according to information from the Department of Justice.
Dozens of counties reported increases in heroin-related overdoes between 2008 and 2010, according to a 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment. An increase in heroin production in Mexico is at least partially to blame. The country's estimated heroin production rose from 8,000 kilograms in 2005 to 50,000 kilograms in 2009, according to the assessment.
Users typically smoke the drug, with some turning to injection for a more powerful high, Catchings said.
Heroin may be cut with adulterants three or four times before it reaches a user at the South Shore. Deaths typically result when an injection user unknowingly gets a purer version of the drug, takes their usual amount and overdoses because of the unexpected potency, Catchings said.
Unlike past spikes in heroin usage, the recent flood of the drug into the area has disproportionately affected the young, he said.
"Now all I see is people under 30," Catchings said.
"The basic population we seeing right now is adults," added Barna. "We've got a couple of teenagers."
All of the people seeking treatment are struggling to stay clean, Barna said, calling the success rate "ridiculously low." He estimated about 15 percent of heroin users are able to stay off the drug following treatment.
"The craving is incredible," Barna said, "It's very intense."
Both Catchings and Barna pointed to prescription painkiller abuse as a contributor to the rates of heroin use, saying it is common for people who get hooked on pharmaceutical opiates to look toward heroin when their supply of pills or money runs low.
"The prescription pills are the precursor for heroin," Catchings said.
A single pill of the opiate Oxycontin can cost $80, while a gram of heroin will go for $25, Barna said.
And, as the use in heroin at the South Shore grows, Tahoe Turning Point continues to see teenagers and young adults seeking help for prescription painkiller abuse, Barna said.
Although it's uncertain, there's a "good possibility" that the continued abuse of prescription medication will continue to feed rates of heroin abuse at the South Shore, Barna said.
"We won't know that for a couple years," Barna said.