BEATTYVILLE – As new laws make it increasingly more difficult to obtain painkillers, drug users are beginning to turn toward heroin for their high.

While northern Kentucky and major cities, such as Lexington, are struggling to get a handle on problems related to this new drug of choice, most southern and eastern Kentucky counties are just beginning to see heroin crop into their area.

The most recent example came on July 9, when Operation UNITE arrested a known prescription drug trafficker as he attempted to bring a large quantity of heroin into Beattyville.

The arrest was part of a joint investigation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office in London, Beattyville Police Department, Lee County Sheriff Wendell Childers, and the Kentucky State Police Division of Commercial Vehicle Enforcement (commonly known as the KVE).

Emmanuel Lee Wilson Jr., 40, of Cincinnati, Ohio, was charged with first-degree trafficking in a controlled substance after he was found to be hauling approximately four ounces of heroin to be sold in Lee County.

“For Eastern Kentucky that’s a pretty good amount,” said Paul Hays, law enforcement director for UNITE. “It’s showing heroin is working this way and we had better be prepared.”

Earlier this month, Lexington created a task force to address a sharp rise in overdose deaths caused from heroin. In the first six months of 2013 there were 28 heroin overdose deaths, six more than in all of 2012 and more than five times as many as two years ago, according to a report in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Heroin is becoming more popular because it is currently cheaper and easier to get than opioid medications such as Oxycodone following a crackdown on prescription painkillers in 2012.

Although heroin can be less expensive than its prescription drug counterparts, it also comes with added risk, officials say.

“You don’t know the purity of the heroin,” Hays said. “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 person switches between suppliers, they could inject a stronger dose without knowing it, leading to an overdose, he added.

Kentucky’s Administrative Office of the Courts reports that there were 921 cases containing some type of heroin charge in circuit courts in 2012, up from 456 in 2011. In district court, there were 1,784 cases in 2012, up from 679 in 2011.

Wilson appeared for a preliminary hearing before Lee County District Court Judge William “Bo” Leach on July 16. He remains lodged at Three Forks Regional Jail under a $250,000 cash bond.

UNITE officials said the investigation is continuing and that the case will be presented to a federal grand jury because of the amount of heroin seized during the arrest.