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‘A gateway to death’
by AMANDA WINTERS
Benjamin Wyant got two second chances at life this month.
The first he received from Judge George Wood, who sentenced him to a residential treatment program Aug. 9 for his addiction to heroin instead of prison for possession of a controlled substance, residential burglary and resisting arrest.
The second chance at life he received the next morning from a friend who called 9-1-1 when she awoke to find the 32-year-old man on the floor, blue and not breathing, after injecting heroin when he should have been on a bus to American Behavioral Health Services in Chehalis.
“He went straight to Sequim to the house of his drug dealer and almost died of an overdose,” said John Troberg, Clallam County deputy prosecuting attorney.
“This offender’s actions are an incredible testament to the power of addiction ... the next time Wyant goes to a drug house he might not be so lucky to have a fellow addict who displays responsible enough behavior to call for help,” a corrections officer wrote in a report recommending Wyant be sentenced to prison so he could obtain forced abstinence before seeking treatment.
After he was discharged from the hospital, Wyant was sentenced to 13 months in prison.
“That’s the power heroin has over people,” Troberg said, commenting on what seems to be a surge in heroin use locally. “They are extremely addicted and when people are really not in control of what they want, their whole life revolves around using.”
Users often turn to stealing or dealing drugs to support their habit, he said.
Sequim Police Chief Bill Dickinson said the heroin problem is not only a public health threat but a public safety threat as well.
“We don’t want them to die. We don’t want them to become addicted,” he said. “But obviously some do. Once they get addicted it not only changes their life physically, it almost always turns them to a life of crime in order to support their habit. That not only affects them but all their victims. That’s a larger consequence to our community.”
Increase in heroin cases
Richard “TJ” Terwilliger is one of eight Sequim defendants ages 18-32 to have heroin-related probable cause motions filed against them in Clallam County Superior Court since February.
Troberg said there is a noticeable increase in heroin cases coming across his desk this year and while it isn’t feasible to charge every possession arrest, drug dealers and those committing crimes to support their habits are most likely to face felony charges.
The heroin trend, seen by law enforcement in the past year and especially the past six months, seems to have the strongest hold in the east end of Clallam County, especially with teenagers and young adults.
Terwilliger, 23, is accused of selling heroin to a Sequim Police Department undercover operative three times, once from outside his home while his young son was inside. He pleaded not guilty July 13 and faces a trial date of Sept. 26.
An 18-year-old, a 19-year-old and a 22-year-old also face delivery of a controlled substance, heroin, charges in separate cases stemming from Sequim arrests. Possessing heroin is a Class C felony; delivering it is a Class B felony. Additionally, drug dealers whose product leads to a fatal overdose can be charged with homicide.
But the buying, selling and using of heroin isn’t just a problem in the sense of criminal actions and repercussions. Two Sequim teens who spoke to the Gazette anonymously say it is destroying their friends and family.
Heroin ‘really easy’ to find
Like most teenagers, “Taylor” and “Jessie” think adults don’t have a clue. When it comes to the scope of heroin use among their peers, they just might be right.
From July 27-Aug. 19, five people overdosed on heroin in Clallam County Fire District 3. The patients were 16, 17, two in their 20s, 32 and 60 years old. Jessie knows one of them.
Three people Taylor once considered good friends now are regular users of heroin. Both say they know close to a dozen people ranging in age from 16-22 who smoke or inject the drug.
Their friends gather in private to inject each other, not just in their arms but in their necks as well, sometimes with their infant children in the next room. It’s not like when cocaine was popular and people would be in the corner at a house party “railing a line or two,” they said.
It’s different from the other drugs that have phased in and out since Taylor and Jessie first were exposed to drug use among their peers.
Jessie first noticed prevalent experimentation with drugs at the end of his sophomore year in 2009. It started with marijuana and drinking alcohol, then they tried pills -— swallowing them, railing them or burning them to inhale the vapors.
Jessie said when drug manufacturers started making the prescription painkiller OxyContin in a liquid form so the drug no longer could be crushed and smoked, people looked for an alternative.
Marijuana isn’t intense enough. Cocaine is “a rich man’s drug.” Meth isn’t hard to find but it isn’t as cheap or convenient as heroin, which Jessie said is “really easy” to find.
Taylor is surprised and scared at how popular the drug is with her peers. Recently, when confronting a friend about using “H,” he insisted he wasn’t “slamming” it, meaning injecting. Another friend insisted the pockmarks on his face were due to acne and brushed off questions about track marks on his arms.
“They become really good liars,” Jessie said.
Taylor said warning signs of heroin use often go ignored because users explain them away.
“It changes them,” Taylor said, listing dramatic weight loss, pockmarks on their skin, track marks on their arms or necks, sudden seclusion and standoffish, defensive personality changes. “It’s nerve-racking.”
Jessie remembers learning about drugs in high school health class for one day during freshman year. It wasn’t enough.
“From middle school through high school, drug education should be similar to (drug) treatment education,” Taylor said. “Students should learn what drugs do to you, fill out evaluation questions and be asked, ‘What do you know about it?’ not just told, ‘Don’t do drugs, it’s bad for you.’”
Students are told drugs might seem like the cool thing to do, but Jessie said that’s not why they’re using.
“Everyone does it (drugs) because they want to feel something,” Jessie said.
Jessie and Taylor said if people knew who they are they’d probably get their homes robbed and their cars vandalized in retaliation for bringing attention to the heroin problem. But they are tired of seeing their friends “being stupid” and destroying their lives and the lives of their young children, they said.
A community problem
“It’s a gateway to death.”
That’s how Sequim Police Sgt. Sean Madison describes heroin.
“Once they’re hooked there really isn’t any going back,” Dickinson said. “You’re going to be fighting it for the rest of your life.”
The exceptionally addictive, all-consuming drug deteriorates the lives of users slowly. It’s a progression, Madison said.
“No 22-year-old girl drug prostitute starts out thinking she’ll ruin her life smoking heroin,” he said.
Madison said there is only so much he and his fellow officers can do to combat the increasing presence of heroin in this small community.
“It’s a big success if I can take one person out and prevent a few people from getting heroin this weekend,” he said. “But they will get it Monday.”
Like all agencies, the police department is working to do more with less. In three years the department has lost three officers. There no longer is a dedicated school resource officer and there normally are only two to three officers in Sequim at a time.
“That’s the A-Team, there is no B-Team,” Madison said.
Additionally, the heroin in Sequim comes from Mexico through organized crime.
“You can’t just shut one person down and solve the problem,” he said.
Officers regularly make drug arrests and forward cases on to the prosecutor’s office and to the Olympic Peninsula Narcotics Eradication Taskforce, he said. They focus on their strongest cases, typically involving the distribution of heroin.
“He sells poison to people for money,” Madison said of heroin dealers in general.
For about $30 someone can buy half a gram of black tar heroin, which is considered a “good” amount, he said. A significant heroin habit is half a gram to one gram per day, he said, though some use much more.
To put the price in perspective, heroin users can spend $10 to split half a gram of heroin with two other friends and get high for four to six hours for the same price they’d pay to see a movie at the theater.
Jessie said splitting a heroin purchase between friends is common.
In the 1990s, the last time heroin was popular, a gram sold for $100-$120. Now it’s $60, he said.
Undercover buys, such as the ones that led to Terwilliger’s arrest, are part of the drug operations conducted by the Sequim Police Department. With more money they could conduct more investigations and make more arrests, but that wouldn’t solve the problem, Madison said.
“We’ll fill up the prisons. We’ll take lots of drugs off the street,” he said. “But this is a community illness ... the community has to solve this problem.”
Dickinson said law enforcement can only step in once the drugs lead to criminal behavior. Prevention and intervention must happen before that point and that is something law enforcement can’t do.
There isn’t a simple answer to a complex societal problem, which is what drug abuse is, he said.
A partnership among the police, fire department and school district is in the works to provide drug education to school staff, parents and students.
Jessie and Taylor would like to see that.
“Someone shouldn’t have to die for the community to wake up,” Taylor said.
Reach Amanda Winters at firstname.lastname@example.org.