Needles on needles
Needles on needles

Huntington Beach Leads OC in Overdose Deaths...But Police Don't Think There's a Heroin OD Problem

*UPDATE, JULY 18: Read editor's note at the bottom...

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JULY 7, 2017: Orange County ranked third in California for counties with the highest drug overdose deaths between 2013 and 2015, according to California Health Rankings. And OC's opioid OD city champ is Huntington Beach. 42 people died of that cause in 2016, according to the Orange County Coroner Division —a record for HB, which has seen an increase every year since 2013. It has been in a years-long fight with Anaheim for the unfortunate title, and they're tied so far this year with five deaths each. The difference, though, is Anaheim has a population of nearly 360,000, while Surf City is just under 200,000.

HB is way overrepresented in local opioid OD deaths, and local rehab clinics are doing their best to cope with this crisis. But at the Huntington Beach Police Department, officials have a different take: there is no crisis when it comes to specifically heroin overdose deaths in the city.

"I've done research on my end and I checked the amount of arrests and overdoses we've had for the past three years, and we haven't seen any significant increase at all," says HB police spokesperson Angela Bennet. "Officers are coming across it more in traffic stops," she adds, mentioning that drug arrests have gone up by a third—but that this doesn't necessarily mean heroin use is at a crisis level in Surf City.

So let's recap: HB leads OC in deaths by opioid overdose. HB has seen an increase in drug arrests, and officers are finding more opioids in traffic stops. But there's not a problem with heroin in HB? Hmmm...

That's not what Johnny Knaack, C.E.O of Beach City Treatment Center, is seeing. He says that centers like him are not getting the "help to help," saying that the focus of problems within the overdose world is going towards highlighting individual community tragedies—the stereotypical "we never suspected he'd be a drug user"—rather than preventing deaths and addiction from happening.

And others in HB freely admit the town has a problem. A 2016 FB post by Huntington Beach-based Orange County Recovery Services (which has since been taken down) mentioned "heroin problems in High Schools in Huntington Beach" and that heroin overdoses in local high schools "have hit record highs" since 2009 because of the cut to public safety officials.

Bunch of rubber duckies heading to HB...better than drugs, you know?
Bunch of rubber duckies heading to HB...better than drugs, you know?
Photo by John Gilhooley

"There is an epidemic of huge proportion [in Huntington Beach] that there merely is no answer to," said Knaack, especially when it comes to young adults. He explains that doctors often neglect teens and this leads teens to then search for a drug that relieves pain for half the cost—switching from their opioid prescriptions ("Doctors are handing it out like candy," says Knaack) to street heroin.

Tony Orth, owner of Broadway Treatment Center, feels heroin is "the go-to drug for the next generation" in HB and is now passed around more than ever. But it didn't have to be this way. The 2012 overdose death of 18-year-old Tyler MacCleod drew headlines at the time and angered parents. HB officials and councilmembers promised change and programs that would address the dangers of heroin. Yet records for opioid overdose deaths have increased every year since, making it seem like HB has forgotten the lessons of that tragedy.

So is there a heroin problem in Huntington, or not? The statistics are there and recovery centers say so. But maybe Huntington Beach does have it under control—because everything HBPD says is true, right?

*Editor's note: This article originally stated that Huntington Beach leads Orange County in overdose deaths by heroin. While statistics provided by the Orange County Coroner Division shows HB led the county in overdose deaths in 2016 (and to those in our comments section who insist that those OD deaths were outsiders who just happened to die within city limits: the OC Coroner Division's stats specifically referred to "City of Residence" when listing OD deaths), those figures didn't specify the drugs that caused each overdose. Also, we clarified the original Orange County Recovery Services Facebook post we mentioned in the story. The Weekly regrets the confusion, and urges Surf City residents to Just Say No.


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