In the ‘60s, the focus was on LSD, marijuana, turning on and tuning out.
In the ‘70s, it was cocaine at the discothèque. The ’80s meant crack cocaine abuse, that urban nemesis that led Nancy Reagan to plead: “Say no to drugs.”
The ‘90s saw a rise in methamphetamine and homemade potions. Americans learned the drug could be made with similar household products.
As the century turned, opiate use, such as prescription painkillers and heroin, came into vogue. Abuse rose, and the government and media are reacting.
To many, the opiate/heroin plague is simply a shift in America’s attention on drug abuse.
Efforts to stamp out pill abuse simply led to the increased popularity of heroin, a dark drug that has been lurking in the background during all these decades.
Heroin use is far from an urban problem. It’s as accessible as it is enticing. Its grip, relentless. Its allure reaches young adults, some teens, from the poor to the wealthy.
Authorities estimate that 11 people die every week in Ohio from heroin overdoses.
“The death and devastation wreaked by heroin is a crisis. And it is not just a crisis for some. Heroin is everyone’s problem,” said Steven Dettelbach, the U.S. Attorney for northern Ohio. “Heroin is everyone’s problem. It is our brothers and sisters who are dying, our aunts and uncles, and yes, our children.”
Dettelbach made the comments during a recent area summit of community leaders, law enforcement and medical professionals. The startling rise in heroin-related deaths has brought the drug to the forefront of discussion.
Back from the dead
The truth is, the death toll could be much higher, if not for the intervention of paramedics.
In Akron, paramedics have used a drug called Narcan 45 times for 250 reported overdose cases. Rescue workers say the drug essentially reverses the effects of heroin and brings people “back from the dead.”
“Keep in mind that this is truly a lifesaving drug, but some of our patients may have been past the point of resuscitation and Narcan would not have been administered at all,” said Capt. Joseph Natko, who oversees the city’s EMS bureau.
“I’d have to agree with the ‘epidemic’ statement. We now see heroin use in a much larger scale than we’ve ever seen it before.”
The rash of deaths statewide — 606 in Ohio last year — and the four-year growth of use has prompted Attorney General Mike DeWine to declare heroin use an epidemic.
To combat the problem, DeWine has created a unit of investigators, lawyers and drug abuse specialists to deal with issues associated with heroin use. Gov. John Kasich created the Governor’s Cabinet Opiate Action Team, which in October released stricter guideline recommendations for physicians prescribing pain meds.
DeWine’s office has been involved in revoking the licenses of more than two dozen doctors and pharmacists for improperly prescribing pain meds. In addition, criminal charges have resulted in convictions against 15 doctors, pharmacists and traffickers.
According to the Ohio Department of Health, per capita distribution of opiate pain meds has risen from seven in 1997 to 67 in 2011. The number of opiate-related deaths rose 447 percent, from 327 in 1999 to 1,765 in 2011.
“Communities have to wake up. If you don’t think you have a problem, you are probably wrong,” said DeWine. “Local law enforcement understands the problem. As I have traveled the state, over and over sheriffs and police and coroners tell me how bad it is.
“Unfortunately, there are people out there who don’t believe heroin is really in their communities. They don’t want to believe that this can be them — that this can be their child who is addicted or who is going to die from a heroin overdose. The numbers tell a different story.”
One thread continues to arise from the ashes of the heroin plague.
Government intervention in the painkiller market has made heroin all the more popular. You hear it from users, and you hear it from counselors.
Still, more changes are in the offing to regulate prescription painkillers. To many, drugs like Vicodin and Percocet are a gateway to heroin.
“They’re willing to do anything for it,” said Uniontown Police Chief Harold Britt. “Heroin is an epidemic right now.”
The chief speaks from experience.
He’s heard of young girls prostituting themselves for the drug.
Others, he said, are breaking into homes and cars.
He recently conducted an investigation into the death of a 20-year-old resident who was found unconscious by family members. The man had overdosed a day after being released from jail Oct. 31.
For nearly the past decade, federal and state authorities targeted unscrupulous doctors who prescribed painkillers to more and more patients.
News stories document pill doctors in Florida feeding a pipeline of painkillers into Ohio by way of Kentucky and West Virginia. Similar pain clinics popped up everywhere.
Southern Ohio was especially popular to the pill-mill trade.
In reaction, law enforcement began focusing on doctors who over-prescribe. They also changed the formulas of some narcotic painkillers, making it impossible for a pill to be crushed.
The government reaction squeezed the opiate market, and the laws of supply and demand took over. Fewer pills on the streets meant higher prices. As a result, users in greater numbers embraced heroin, a faster-acting opiate that costs far less than a pill and works better.
The addiction to heroin, however, is far greater and more intense. So, too, are the withdrawals and the potential for overdose.
More deaths of young people have caught the attention of state attorneys, federal prosecutors and police departments large and small.
In little Brimfield Township, Police Chief David Oliver laments the heroin death of a 19-year-old former high school cheerleader as a symbol of the devastating effects of the drugs.
Years ago, Oliver worked as an undercover narcotics agent. He’s seen tremendous change in the heroin market: users as young as 19 and as old as 60.
Users often steal from family members and then target others, stealing and pawning what they can in order to buy more. The high, he said, is often gone. Instead, users keep abusing in order to avoid the dire withdrawal symptoms.
“The drug is far more prevalent and dangerous than any other time I have seen in my career,” he said. “The heroin I bought undercover in 1999 for $100 is about $20 right now.
“We are seeing a lot more supply and lower prices, which unfortunately causes more use because of price and availability. The prices to get high on heroin today can be compared to crack cocaine prices in that drug’s prime.”