DEA agent: High cost of black market prescription pills leads to increase in heroin-related deaths _lowres

Terry Davis, DEA resident in charge, based in Baton Rouge

Heroin-related deaths are on the rise in the Baton Rouge area, and prescription medications are the so-called “gateway drugs” to blame for the problem.

That’s part of what Terry Davis, the Baton Rouge-based resident agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency for the New Orleans division, shared at a Rotary Club lunch Wednesday.

The high cost of prescription pills on the black market drive inexperienced dealers to mold heroin with random ingredients into what looks like traditional pills, and unwitting buyers are ingesting them, he said.

“That’s why these heroin overdose deaths are skyrocketing in our region,” Davis said.

Just three years ago, in 2012, five people died from heroin overdoses in East Baton Rouge Parish, but the number of heroin-related deaths shot up to 34 the following year and were recorded at 28 last year, according to the Coroner’s Office. This year, there already have been 22 such deaths in the parish, said Coroner Dr. William “Beau” Clark.

The increase mirrors a national trend in heroin-related deaths, which nearly quadrupled from 2002 to 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Two Baton Rouge doctors — Walter Ellis and James Hines — were arrested due to DEA investigations into illegal prescription drug distribution over the past year and a half.

Ellis was booked with obstruction of justice, but prosecutors have declined to pursue the case.

Davis said purchasing illegal prescription drugs can take the hard edge off the illicit transactions.

“I know when I did undercover, I actually preferred buying pills to crack because the transactions were safer, they were quicker and there was less negotiation,” he said.

And one factor to eye might be the recreational use of pills by college students, he said.

“Adderall, of course, is like SweeTARTS for a college student, unfortunately,” he said, referring to a medication intended to treat attention problems misused by some students for intense studying.

While not all college-aged drug users graduate to serious prescription pill abuse, many do, especially in the context of apathetic or uninformed parents, he said.

“Once they jump that hurdle and become more desperate, we tend to see it more,” he said.

Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.

This article was changed on Aug. 14 to update status of the case against Ellis.