Northeast Ohio’s struggle to combat the spike in heroin and fentanyl use reflects a growing fight nationwide, according to a report released by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Nationally, heroin has been responsible for a massive spike in overdose deaths. In 2014, 10,574 people died in the United States from heroin-related overdoses — more than triple the number who died in 2010. The death toll has risen steadily since 2010 and continues to escalate.
Summit County has seen a similar trend. There was a spike of 50 percent in heroin deaths from 2014 to 2015. Of the 213 people in Summit County who died in 2015 of drug overdoses, 153 died from heroin or the more deadly fentanyl, the county medical examiner’s office reported. That’s compared to about 100 in 2014 who died of overdoses on all opiates — including heroin, the more potent fentanyl and prescription painkillers.
Gary Guenther, the medical examiner’s chief investigator, said the local trend of heroin-related deaths appeared quickly and has not relented.
“Up until 2013, we never had 100 dying of all drug overdoses,” he said. “Now we’re seeing 150 die of just heroin and fentanyl.”
Akron police Detective Mike Schmidt agreed, adding that it’s only getting worse despite multipronged efforts to curb heroin and fentanyl use.
“It’s all about demand,” Schmidt said.
And demand is high. According to Tuesday’s DEA report, the number of heroin users has almost tripled since 2007. There were 435,000 heroin users in the U.S. in 2014, compared to 161,000 in 2007.
As a result, heroin arrests and seizures by law enforcement have seen similar spikes. Just 2,763 kilograms of heroin were seized by police agencies in 2010, compared to 6,722 kilograms in 2015.
And over that same time period, heroin’s purity — and therefore its potency and deadliness — has increased, too. Meanwhile, heroin is cheaper to buy than it was in the 1980s and ’90s, making it more accessible and affordable.
“Heroin is definitely deadlier today than it was when I first started,” Schmidt said.
The DEA report indicated that the population of heroin users is actually smaller than those using methamphetamine, marijuana, prescription painkillers and cocaine. But heroin has made headlines across the country — even making it into presidential campaign speeches — partly because it transcends race, social class and age barriers. Heroin users are also the fastest rising of populations who abuse drugs.
While there are 3.5 times more cocaine users in the United States than there are heroin users, heroin users account for more than double the drug overdose deaths than cocaine users, according to the DEA report.
Schmidt said the culture of heroin use is a complicated one, but it must be understood before it can be combated effectively.
“I think we’re all trying to figure out how to curtail it,” he said. “But until then, it’s just getting worse.”
Nick Glunt can be reached at 330-996-3565 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NickGluntABJ.