The heroin problem that Northern and Central Kentucky counties have been dealing with for months is beginning to crop up in southern and Eastern Kentucky, according to officials of a regional anti-drug initiative.
"It was inevitable," Dan Smoot, the CEO of Operation UNITE, said Monday.
"We knew it was coming. We just didn't know when it would hit."
A recent example of the activity came July 9, when Operation UNITE officials arrested a Cincinnati man as he allegedly attempted to bring a large quantity of heroin into Beattyville, an Operation UNITE news release said.
Emmanuel Lee Wilson Jr., 40, was charged with first-degree trafficking in a controlled substance after he allegedly was found to be hauling about 4 ounces of heroin to be sold in Lee County, the release said.
"For Eastern Kentucky that's a pretty good amount," Paul Hays, law enforcement director for Operation UNITE, said in the release. "It's showing heroin is working this way and we had better be prepared."
Wilson was being held at Three Forks Regional Jail in Lee County under a $250,000 cash bond.
UNITE officials said in the release that the investigation was continuing. Wilson's case will be presented to a federal grand jury because of the amount of heroin seized during the arrest.
Since a crackdown on prescription painkillers in Kentucky in 2012, heroin is becoming more popular because it is cheaper — and easier to get — than opioid medications such as oxycodone.
An increase in heroin use first surfaced in Northern Kentucky and then became a problem in Louisville and Lexington before moving east this spring, Smoot said.
Rowan County was hit before most Eastern Kentucky counties saw a surge.
Rowan Chief Deputy Sheriff Joe Cline said he first noticed heroin activity in Morehead six to nine months ago. "We're working it hard," Cline said. "We've got some investigations ongoing. ...We'll do indictments probably in the upcoming months."
Undercover officers have been buying heroin in southern and Eastern Kentucky for the past three months, said Smoot.
At least one person has called a UNITE hot line searching for treatment of heroin addiction, Smoot said Monday.
Although heroin can be less expensive than its prescription drug counterparts, Hays said it also comes with added risk.
"You don't know the purity of the heroin," he said in the release. "Dealers will often 'cut' the drug with other substances in order to boost their profits. There's no way the public knows what they're shooting up."
If a heroin user switches between suppliers, he or she could inject a stronger dose without knowing it, leading to an overdose, officials said.
Smoot said he was not aware whether heroin overdose deaths were on the increase in southern and Eastern Kentucky as the deaths are in other parts of the state. Rowan County Coroner John Northcutt said Monday he had not seen an increase in overdoses of the drug there.
However, in Lexington, local officials have created a task force to address the rise in overdose deaths caused from heroin. As of Monday, there had been 29 heroin overdose deaths in Fayette County, seven more than in all of 2012, Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said.
Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter: @vhspears.