Smack Is Back

Bucking the recent trend, heroin-related and other overdose deaths in the county increased in 2002.

The lights were out. The doors locked. A used needle was on the floor, and $501 in cash was lying next to the toilet. Brown stains of heroin led from the bathroom floor toward the living room. When police kicked in the door to Layne Staley’s University District apartment on April 19, there, on a couch, lit by a flickering TV, next to several spray-paint cans on the floor, not far from a small stash of cocaine, near two crack pipes on the coffee table, reposed the remains of the rock musician.

A glamour-drug moment it wasn’t. Staley, 34, sitting upright, had been dead for two weeks. According to newly acquired police and medical-examiner reports, he had morphine, codeine, and cocaine in his system—and he was holding in his hand another fully loaded syringe of heroin. Once the lead singer for the popular 1990s grunge band Alice in Chains, Staley had faded from the headlines. Now he was back, as a statistic.


The public health department has ongoing education and training campaigns for heroin and other drug users and their families, with a focus on recognizing overdose signs, risk co-factors, and life-saving responses. More information is available at, or by calling 206-296-4600.

“Heroin,” says city/county Public Health Director Dr. Alonzo Plough, “is a life tragedy for the famous and the non-famous. There are many sad stories similar to Mr. Staley’s.”

AND AS IT TURNS OUT, Staley’s death and those of dozens of lesser-knowns in 2002 had another unfortunate outcome: By sheer number, they reversed what had been a hopeful four-year downward trend of heroin- and cocaine-related fatalities in Seattle and King County. A county statistical review recently compiled for Seattle Weekly shows there were at least 80 opiate-related (heroin-involved) deaths last year. That’s an increase of 16 over 2001. Similarly, there were 76 cocaine-related (mostly crack-smoking) deaths last year, up from 46 in 2001.

Also, deaths linked to methamphetamines more than doubled, to 11, compared to five in 2001. Overall, county deaths from all illicitly used drugs in 2002 (including PCP and club drugs) rose to 186, compared to 153 in 2001. All were classified either as accidental, suicide, or nature undetermined.

The medical-examiner tabulations were run on Dec. 24, with a week left in the year. (And they come with the caveat of all such statistics: They are indicators of change over an arbitrary period, sometimes based on inconclusive investigations.) Health department spokesperson Matias Valenzuela says a final, official accounting will be completed soon. But last year’s death figures clearly outpace those of 2001.

Heroin’s turnaround was most surprising, and there apparently was no single reason, such as an epidemic of purer or poisoned heroin. Deaths involving the narcotic had been decreasing every year since 1998, when 144 heroin-related deaths were recorded, county and University of Washington data show. Officials had been buoyed by the steady decline and hoped Seattle, with its high per-capita heroin death rate, had finally kicked its reputation as “junkie town” (so dubbed by Rolling Stone magazine in the late 1990s).

Now they hope the 2002 spike is just a blip on that downward trend. “It’s a problem we need to address continually,” says health director Plough, noting the successes achieved through expanded drug education, outreach, and treatment programs in jail and out (although budget cuts have derailed some treatment efforts). “I think we’re having a very robust dialogue on ways to deal with heroin and cocaine—they’re chronic illnesses, which is why we talk about recovery, not cures,” Plough says. “Our message is that, first, you don’t use drugs, and second, that you can get help. Get into treatment—treatment works.”

A review of medical-examiner death reports for 2002 indicates the typical heroin-related victim was, like Staley, a white male in his 30s or 40s (although victim ages ranged from 21 to 73). Many, also like Staley, weren’t discovered until days or weeks after they died. At least two heroin-related victims were found days after dying, still in kneeling positions. Victims often lived a solitary life and died surrounded by the drugs that overtook them.

That, too, was Staley’s circumstance, according to a police investigation. In addition to the singer’s tracked-up and paraphernalia-littered bathroom and front room, detectives found a kitchen counter covered with more used needles, more narcotics pipes, and more spray-paint cans. Needles also were found beneath Staley when his 86-pound body was removed. He lived alone in the two-story, three-bedroom apartment (one bedroom contained toys and video games, another musical instruments; the master bedroom had a bed and TV). When police played back Staley’s answering-machine tape, it was filled with two weeks’ worth of calls asking where he was.

HIS DEATH IS LABELED heroin-related because other drugs were involved. Heroin in such cases is often the primary cause of death. Of the 80 heroin-related deaths last year, 19 were thought to be heroin-only, spokesperson Valenzuela says.

Some music fans felt Staley was somehow a willing victim of drugs and faded stardom—resigned to being forgotten to death. But the official ruling was that he died from an accidental overdose. And the singer, who often spoke publicly about his decade-long habit, once felt addiction was beatable: “I’m gonna be here for a long time,” he vowed some years back. Members of Staley’s band said in a statement that Staley “struggled greatly [with addiction]. We can only hope that he has at last found some peace.”

A Seattle police detective, in his final report, added a somber footnote: After hearing of the death, Lynnwood police called to say they were holding the rocker’s MTV Music Video Award in their evidence room. Alice in Chains was voted best hard-rock band runner-up in 1996, and the award apparently had been stolen or otherwise appropriated. But Staley, for reasons he took to his grave, never sought to reclaim it.