Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said that after three confirmed heroin overdose deaths since Jan. 1, he is now testing heroin taken from the scene of an overdose death.
Any time there is an overdose death now, Ginn said, he considers heroin as a potential cause. That includes a death Saturday night in Lexington, he said. The coroner's office is waiting for toxicology results in eight deaths that it suspects were caused by heroin.
"It could be a bad batch," Ginn said. "With this many people, that's a possibility."
Lexington police have seen an increase in heroin cases this year, spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said.
Roberts did not release exact figures for the number of cases, but, anecdotally, she said, heroin arrests and heroin seizures were rare before September.
In September and October, Roberts said, police might have encountered heroin four or five times a month. Even in January, she told the Herald-Leader, officers weren't seeing many criminal cases.
"Now they are happening weekly and sometimes daily," Roberts said. "Our narcotics enforcement is working diligently to allocate resources to tackle this issue."
Roberts said the Division of Police has devoted a lot of its resources to combat the problem.
The increase in heroin in Lexington coincides with a statewide trend: Heroin has been replacing prescription pain pills as the drug of choice in other parts of the state for the past several months.
"Some of the prescription drug lines have gotten shut down," Ginn said. "People are going to different alternatives. We're seeing this in the age bracket of mid-20s all the way up to 60."
Ginn said heroin over doses have been more frequent in Lexington since 2007.
There were no heroin deaths in Lexington from 2002 to 2006, and there was one in 2007. There were one to five heroin overdose deaths each year until 2012, when there were 22, he said.
Heroin use is a problem in Central and Northern Kentucky and in Louisville.
The Herald-Leader reported in January that in Louisville, initial statistics suggested that more than 50 people died of heroin overdoses in 2012.
Kentucky State Police trooper Paul Blanton said the Richmond post, which covers 11 Central Kentucky counties, has come into contact with heroin users frequently. Blanton said $30 could buy more heroin than prescription pills.
One reason for the increased interest in heroin is that some pain pills have been reformulated to make it more difficult for abusers to crush them. Also, police have cracked down on the flow of prescription pills into Kentucky from Florida and other states. The General Assembly passed House Bill 1 last year, putting into place regulations to thwart unscrupulous doctors and to make it more difficult for drug abusers to obtain prescription drugs.
Dan Smoot, vice president of Operation UNITE, a 32-county drug task force in Eastern and southeastern Kentucky that also provides education and treatment, said prescription pills were the drug of choice in that region. However, his organization is prepared to address the heroin issue, he said.
"We know it's coming, but it's not hit us like other parts of the state," he said.
There are efforts in the General Assembly to work on the heroin overdose problem.
Under a bill approved by a House committee last week, people other than medical staff could, without fear of liability, administer the drug naloxone, which is used to reverse an overdose.
House Bill 79, sponsored by Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, would allow doctors to prescribe the drug to someone they think is able to administer it, such as a relative of a heroin addict. Neither the doctor nor the person administering the drug would be subject to disciplinary action under Kentucky law.
Meanwhile, Ginn said all heroin users — even those who have been using the drug for a long time — run the risk of an overdose.
"Nobody really knows the amount that they can get by with taking without over dosing themselves," he said.
He said a user's height, weight and previous history of use all play into the amount a person can take without killing himself.
And, he said, alcohol mixed with heroin adds a level of danger.
"They'll go to sleep, and their system just kind of shuts down," he said.