AURORA | First came the prescription opiates — heavy pain killers like Oxycontin, Vicodin and Percocet.
When that got too expensive or hard to find, heroin became a cheap and easy-to-find step up, leading to serious steps down.
Amy Lowe, outpatient clinical program manager at Arapahoe House, said she saw that scenario play out more times than she can count.
“Some days when I would do intakes, it was like a broken record hearing that story,” she said.
And often, the addicts followed a similar, startling path after they got hooked on heroin: They started using methamphetamine to deal with the pain of heroin withdrawal.
“They are terrified to withdraw, they will use any and everything to not feel that feeling,” Lowe said.
Having seen that cycle play out over and over — starting with pricey prescription opiates, moving to cheaper heroin and then getting hooked on meth when they try to quit — Lowe isn’t surprised to hear that drug cases in Aurora have exploded in recent years.
According to Aurora police, heroin and meth arrests are skyrocketing. Heroin cases are up a whopping 1,300 percent — from just 13 heroin cases in 2006 to 182 last year.
Meth, after seeing dramatic drops in use from 2007 to 2010, has been steadily climbing since and is now at record levels. Aurora’s previous peak for meth arrests was 145 in 2007, but the drug’s prevalence dipped to 86 cases in 2010.
Last year, police had a record 315 meth cases, a spike of 266 percent since that 2010 low.
Cocaine use — once far and away the most common of the three drugs Aurora police came across — has seen an uptick in the past two years after a dramatic drop from 2007, when it peaked with almost 600 arrests. Last year, there were 294 cocaine arrests, up from a low of just 228 in 2014.
As of mid-July, meth and heroin cases were on pace to top those 2015 levels, and cocaine was on about the same pace as 2015.
Aurora police Lt. Martin Clough, who oversees the department’s narcotics unit, said he isn’t sure exactly why there has been a huge spike.
“It just seems like it’s available, and particularly the heroin is getting more and more common,” he said.
Clough also speculated that some of the spike might be the product of a shift in the court system aimed at curbing the use of lengthy jail sentences for drug users.
While arrests and summonses for other crimes have dipped across the city in recent years, drug cases have bucked the trend. Clough said that isn’t a product of his team cracking down especially hard on drug users, either.
“We try to target the dealers rather than the users on the street because we get a bigger bang for the buck,” he said.
In many of the cases, while the narcotics unit will file the case, the arrests come from patrol officers working the street, Clough said. Those officers increasingly find heroin or meth on suspects they pick up for warrants or other reasons, he said.
One bright spot for police is that the spike in heroin and meth use hasn’t come with a spike in violent crime directly associated with those drugs. Clough said there are likely some robberies or other crimes committed by people looking to get money for drugs, but police haven’t seen much in the way of turf wars or other drug-related violence.
Aurora hasn’t dealt with a major jump in drug overdoses the way cities in the Midwest and East Coast have either, he said. Still, there is a palpable worry that it will come.
“Everybody in the department is focused on that,” he said.
The problem nationally has become so prevalent that many state legislators are considering measures that regulate narcotic prescriptions, including Colorado.
Part of the worry, Clough said, is that the heroin on the street is increasingly mixed with prescription narcotics like fentanyl, a high-powered drug used to treat severe pain, and that dramatically increases the risk of overdose.
Like Lowe, Clough said the heroin users police come across almost always say they started using prescription drugs before turning to increasingly-available heroin.
“I don’t think anybody sets out and decides they are gonna go shoot up heroin,” he said.
At Arapahoe House, Lowe said that while many heroin users have then reached for meth to kick their opiate habit, it’s not a solution. Instead, she said addicts should check themselves into a facility where they can talk through withdrawal and get medicine to help.
Many addicts fear withdrawal can be fatal, she said, and while that can’t happen, the pain is acute.
“It looks like a human who is starving to death,” she said. “That’s how desperate that feeling is.”