State Prison Official Mistakenly Exaggerates Scope Of Idaho's Heroin Problem

Mar 18, 2016

We told you this week that the heroin epidemic much of the country is experiencing has not yet reached Idaho but that it could soon. However, some people say heroin is already a big problem here.

The same day we reported state numbers that show heroin use is still a relatively small problem, the head of the state’s Department of Correction tweeted that an Idahoan dies from heroin use every other day.  Kevin Kempf says he made a mistake. Kempf says he saw a TV show on the national heroin epidemic and then a local TV news report about Idaho’s prescription opioid problem and tweeted heroin instead of opioid.

But Kempf says even if heroin is not a big problem in Idaho yet, it’s a serious issue.

“As just a citizen of Idaho, I’m worried about it,” Kempf says. “I worry about it as the director of the Department of Correction because our 200 probation and parole officers across the state are all supervising probationers and parolees, many of which have a substance abuse issue. If this is an emerging issue, it can affect public safety.”

There’s no question heroin is an emerging issue in Idaho and that prescription opioid abuse is already a big problem. But even if Kempf had not mixed up the words heroin and opioid, his tweet still would have been wrong because the local TV station got its numbers wrong. It cited numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for all drug deaths in Idaho in 2014 as deaths just from opioids.

According to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare's 2014 numbers, the most recent available, 12 Idahoans died from heroin use that year, or about one every 30 days. Sixty-three died of opioid use. That's about one death every six days.  

According to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare 12 Idaho residents died from heroin overdose in 2014 but only half of those deaths occurred in Idaho. Some deaths involve more than one drug so adding up the amounts represented on this chart may produce a sum larger than the total number of deaths.
Credit data from Idaho Department of Health and Welfare

Health and Welfare says 145 Idahoans died from accidental drug overdoses in 2014. The CDC’s number of 212 includes suicides as well as accidental deaths.

But the local TV station whose news team misinterpreted the CDC data is not the only one guilty of sensationalizing the opioid and heroin problem. Another local station recently began a story on heroin with this assertion.

“You can go to any corner in downtown Boise or in most towns and cities across the state and find it within minutes.”

That’s hyperbole at best. A DEA source tells us that unlike Salt Lake City or Portland, you can’t buy heroin on the street in Boise at all. Instead he says, users have to buy it through known contacts. A drug counselor in Nampa tells us users with those contacts can get heroin in about an hour. 

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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