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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah County is known as a safe, family friendly place to live and work, but a KSL investigation reveals that heroin is finding its way into the county at an alarming rate.
According to the Utah Department of Health, 446 Utahns — 80 from Utah County — died from heroin use between 2008 and 2012. And if the amount of heroin being taken off the streets is any indication, use may be on the rise.
Lt. Phil Murphy of the Orem Department of Public Safety said there are bags and bag full of heroin piled all over the evidence room table, which has been seized by the Utah County Major Crimes task force.
"It's tragic," said Murphy, who oversees the Major Crimes task force. "It's destroying families."
Murphy said heroin knows no boundaries. Mothers, fathers, business executives, athletes, scholars and even missionaries have all been caught in its grip. He added that heroin can be so powerful one use can hook even the most disciplined among us.
Cops: Heroin seizures on the rise in Utah County
The Utah County Major Crimes task force had a goal this year to seize 10 pounds of heroin. But by the first week of March, detectives had surpassed their goal by 1,100 percent, having seized more than 121 pounds.
Murphy explained dealers are smuggling heroin any way they can, including inside soles of shoes or car parts. And if smuggling goes undetected by law enforcement, sellers will divvy it up into tiny balloons and distribute the balloons to users for about $15 each.
Desperate for a fix
When Utah County addicts don't want to or can't buy heroin their own backyard, they will drive 100 miles round trip to buy heroin in a drug-ridden area of Salt Lake City a few blocks west of Pioneer Park.
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Recently, Salt Lake City police arrested several people for buying drugs in that area.
"We get a lot of traffic from out of town," said Sgt. Taylor West of Salt Lake City Police.
West said Utah County residents are among those who come to Salt Lake.
"You can literally pull curbside and make eye contact with the right person and literally do a hand-to-hand drug transaction from the window of your car, like a drive-up," West explained.
Salt Lake City police seized illegal street drugs as well as prescription narcotics in a recent bust. Police explained it's often prescription pill use that leads to heroin abuse, because at $15 per balloon, heroin is cheaper and easier to buy than controlled substances such as OxyContin or morphine.
Happiness in a heroin balloon?
When asked why people come to the west side of Salt Lake City in search of drugs, one person in the area said she believes users are in search of "happiness."
Heroin deaths in Utah 2008-2012
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"I wish they'd find another way to be happy, because they don't look happy," she said.
Former heroin addict David Cryer said he used the drug for a decade and using became a full-time job.
"That was one of the scariest days of my life when I realized I was hooked, I was addicted."
Cryer, a Utah County resident for most of his life, said he drove back and forth to Salt Lake City day after day for 10 years to buy his supply.
He used prescription painkillers after a surgery and eventually turned to heroin to cope with personal struggles. He believes users choose heroin to push problems aside instead of dealing with them head-on.
"A lot of people hide their feelings, and if you're hiding your feelings, to numb them out is even better, then you don't have to hide them because you don't have them," Cryer said.
Heroin and the brain
Gordon Bruin is with the Utah County Department of Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Treatment and has spent thousands of hours counseling hundreds of addicts during his 25-year career.
"They are frustrated in life, they don't feel good, they've experienced some pain or trauma," Bruin said.
"One time and it can take over a person's life because of the area of the brain where it works," said Bruin.
Substance-abuse counselor Gordon Bruin wanted me to better understand heroin addiction, so he asked me to think of one food item I love. Oreo cookies immediately came to mind. I like them — A LOT — and have a hard time stopping at one.
Bruin asked me to close my eyes and imagine never being able to eat another Oreo cookie for the rest of my life. Never again. I immediately felt anxious, nervous — as though part of my brain wanted me to stop the interview and drive to the nearest supermarket to buy Oreos. But then I reminded myself I was on the job and I needed to ignore my instantaneous craving for a cookie.
When I told Bruin how the experiment made me feel, he explained that's how addicts feel and why it's difficult to break the cycle.
He explained that heroin works on the part of the brain that makes us do what it takes to avoid pain or suffering, and users struggle to kick their addiction because of the "two-part brain."
"For many who struggle with an addiction they go, 'Oh, my word, no wonder I have two voices in my head,' " said Bruin. "One part wants to use and doesn't care about the consequences, the other says, 'I want to stop this, and this doesn't feel good to me, I want my freedom and I don't feel free.' "
Cryer broke his addiction by dealing with the issues that drove him to use. He has full-time employment now and said he's enjoying life.
Murphy said the real solution is for addicts to do what Cryer did and get to the bottom of why they're hooked on heroin in the first place.
"The root of the evil here is getting to find out why people even have to take the substance," Murphy said.
Police and counselors realize most substance abusers won't willingly admit they have a problem. In fact, an informal survey at the Utah County Department of Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Treatment found only 7 percent of those who abuse substances came forward on their own for help. The rest were forced to seek treatment by fed-up family members or through the court system.
Health departments across Utah offer help to users who want to put their addictions behind them. In Utah County, for example, health officials said about 350 residents are undergoing methadone treatments to stop their heroin cravings.