The use of opiates such as heroin is on the rise among college students in Boulder, according to Mental Health Partners officials.
Ann Noonan, program development director of substance abuse and mental health integration at Mental Health Partners, said that young people start using prescription opiates such as OxyContin and Fentanyl to deal with sports injuries or wisdom teeth removal, and as a result develop a physical and psychological dependence. Once they run out of prescription pills, they have to get creative.
Most health insurance plans cover the cost of prescription opiates, but pills on the black market cost between $20 and $50 each.
In comparison, “a bag of heroin is available for five or ten dollars and its effects can last for up to 48 hours,” Noonan said, “and these days it’s so pure that it can be snorted or smoked.”
Once recognized as a drug that only junkies and homeless people would use, heroin is making its way into college students’ lives.
“We see young people injecting heroin, which gets out of control pretty quickly and can lead to fatal overdoses,” Noonan warned. “We are trying to sound the alarm. Young people are dying from overdose when nobody knew they were using drugs. Heroin is very lethal.”
Patty Brezovar is a prevention specialist at Mental Health Partners. She trains people in using Narcan, a drug that can reverse overdose effects and give paramedics time to intervene.
“Narcan is very easy to use,” Brezovar said. “It can be administered with an automatic injector, sprayed into the nostrils or shot into muscles with a syringe.”
Wardenburg Health Center at the University of Colorado carries Narcan, as staff member Tonya Solano confirmed.
“We have it in our crash cart, just in case,” Solano said.
The cost of the automatic injector can reach $700, but Medicaid covers it with just a $3 copay. Diana Woning, pharmacy manager at Mental Health Partners, said that they sell about three kits a week.
“Most of the people who come here have Medicaid, which is the lowest income insurance available, and that covers Narcan,” she said.
The Colorado Good Samaritan law offers immunity to anyone who reports an emergency drug overdose. The person who suffered the emergency is also immune from criminal persecution. Noonan clarified that an overdose is more traumatic for the person who witnessed it rather than the person who suffered it.
“Seeing your friend slumping to the floor, turning white and not breathing is a dreadful experience, and many young adults come to the center for treatment after witnessing this,” she said.
Governor Hickenlooper declared Aug. 31 Overdose Awareness Day in Colorado back in 2013, and this year a rally was held on the Pearl Street Mall to raise awareness on this date. Officers from the Boulder Police Department carry Narcan with them at all times, but campus police do not, as Sergeant Michael Dodson of the CU-Boulder Police confirmed. According to Mental Health Partners, deaths from overdoses have outpaced deaths from car accidents in the United States and in Colorado.
Brezovar explains that the risk of overdose is increased after a period of sobriety.
“Someone who just got out of prison or detox is at higher risk when using heroin,” she explains, “and it is important not to mix opiates with drugs such as speed, which dramatically increases the chances of an overdose.”
“There’s a lot of denial about it among young people,” Noonan said, “they think prescription drugs are safer and more manageable, but it escalates pretty quickly.”