The Oregonian, Jan. 26, 1996, pp. C1 & C5

Oregon sets high in '95 for drug-related deaths

  • Heroin, cocaine and meth abuse claim 183 lives, up from the previous record of 179 deaths in 1994

    By Chastity Pratt
    of The Oregonian staff

    When Sarah Wilson arrived last July in a Coos County house, her parents swaddled the 31/2-pound girl in a towel and left her on a bed for six hours while they slept.

    The placenta still was attached to her umbilical cord.

    Two days later, Sarah rode in the back seat of a county sheriff's patrol car on a 215-mile journey to Portland.

    Her fragile body, preserved under cold packs in an ice chest, was headed to the Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office for an autopsy.

    The cause of death? Methamphetamines. The potent drug Sarah's mother had been using caused her premature birth, and her parents failed to call for help.

    So Sarah became one of the record number of drug-related deaths in Oregon in 1995.

    Last year, 183 people died from using heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine or a combination of the drugs. The old record was 179 deaths in 1994.

    Most of the deaths came from people who overdosed, while the remainder stemmed from behavior that resulted from taking drugs.

    [Jump headline on page C5:]
    Death rate triples in decade

    A decade ago, the medical examiner could count on one drug-related death a week; now the rate is three times higher.

    So far this year, six autopsies have revealed deaths linked to drugs - three from heroin, one from cocaine and two from methamphetamines.

    When the medical examiner's office counts the number of deaths related to the three drugs, there's no separate count of deaths caused specifically by overdoses.

    "It's not the overdoses, it's the drugs that are the problem," said Gene Gray, a deputy medical examiner.

    Though the rise in drug-related deaths started in the 1980s with heroin, the medical examiner and police are now concerned with the rate of methamphetamine deaths.

    "Meth. That's the epidemic," said Larry Lewman, state medical examiner. "It's not as lethal, but it's cheaper. And it causes a toxic psychosis and (users) can be absolutely irrational for days."

    Because methamphetamine is cheap, causes sleeplessness and wild behavior, and is growing in popularity, Lewman expects his caseload to grow.

    About two-thirds of the heroin and cocaine deaths occur in the Portland area, but methamphetamine cases come from across the state. On the streets, a quarter gram of meth sells for $20. The same $20 will buy one-tenth of a gram of crack cocaine and one-sixteenth of a gram of heroin.

    Inmates in the Multnomah County jail system who had drugs in their system in 1995 reflect the growth in methamphetamine's popularity.

    Roughly 15 percent had heroin in their system when arrested, while 29 percent had methamphetamines, according to a voluntary drug test of 1,500 anonymous inmates conducted by the Drug Use Forecasting Project.

    Lewman said the rise in the drug death toll started with the arrival of "tar" heroin in the 1980s.

    Tar heroin was imported from Mexico and surpassed the popularity of white, powdery heroin that came from Southeast Asia in the 1970s.

    The numbers dropped in 1987 and again in 1991. Both times, police say, major drug busts interrupted the flow of drugs into the Northwest. But by the end of 1992, heroin deaths jumped again, from one a week to two. And the number has increased every year since.

    Lewman said that regardless of the drug, the victims are typically hard-core addicts and white males in their 20s or 30s. They generally die from a "hot," deadly hit of drugs, or because the drug caused behavior that led them to their deaths.

    But Sarah Wilson didn't fit the profile. In fact, she had an 80 percent chance at life and beating the methamphetamines she received through her mother's blood if she had received proper care at birth.

    Her mother, Tracey Buck, 24, and her live-in boyfriend, Richardson Wilson, 52, who claimed to be the father, are serving two-year prison sentences for criminally negligent homicide.

    Oregon Drug Deaths on Rise

    The following is a chart of drug-related deaths during the last 10 years. Because some of the deaths were the result of more than one drug, the figures don't always add up to the total number of deaths.

    Year     Heroin          Cocaine        Meth        Combinations        Total Deaths
    1986        61            16             7              13                   70
    1987        21            14             2               7                   30
    1988        37            27            11               9                   67
    1989        48            33            15              17                   76
    1990        59            26            11              15                   83
    1991        18            27             1               7                   39
    1992        66            34            14              13                  100
    1993       102            33            28              25                  138
    1994       121            30            45              17                  179
    1995       134            32            49              30                  183


    Source: Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office


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