As the Associated Press series which concluded Tuesday showed, heroin is not just Ohio’s problem. One story detailed the struggles of Cody Lewis, a 21-year-old who started using illegal drugs at 12. Now in treatment, he is still fighting addictions.
Once thought to be the drug of choice in inner cities and used mostly by the downtrodden, today’s heroin has no boundaries. Still found in big cities (195 people in Cleveland died in 2013 of heroin-related overdoses), it has expanded to rural America as well.
Lewis lives near Chicago, but could easily be from Findlay, where heroin has contributed to at least eight overdose deaths since 2009.
Heroin-related overdoses killed 426 people in Ohio in 2011, the most recent year for which data was available, up from 338 the previous year.
Among Ohio drug users, 12.5 percent in 2011 considered heroin their drug of choice, up from 5.8 percent in 2004. Addicts in treatment and substance abuse counselors agree heroin is the easiest drug to get in Ohio now.
Nationwide, fatal heroin overdoses increased 45 percent from 2006 to 2010, with 3,038 such deaths reported that year, and the numbers are believed to still be on the rise.
The increase in heroin use stems from a corresponding epidemic in the abuse of prescription opiate-based painkillers such as oxycodone.
As the AP stories showed, heroin is cheap and readily available, but also so highly addictive that most who use it need help getting clean. Many individuals who start out abusing oxycodone turn eventually to heroin as they build up a tolerance to the pain pills and find they can buy heroin far more cheaply than prescription medications on the black market.
Fortunately, Ohio is getting its arms around this.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who says the state is in the midst of a heroin epidemic, has created a special unit to beef up investigations of heroin rings. Prosecution may be part of the solution, but increasing awareness and treatment options are seen by many as being more important.
This area should benefit by having state Rep. Robert Sprague, R-Findlay, leading a House committee which is addressing the issue. Sprague traveled the state last year to hear testimony from counselors, addicts, prosecutors and the public.
In response, lawmakers have introduced 12 bills addressing various aspects of the problem. The approach seems to be working. Had all the legislation been bundled, it might have taken a year, or longer, before it was approved.
The Legislature has already acted on several, including measures to make it easier for communities to offer needle exchange programs and to make Naxolone, a blocking agent that can reverse the effects of an overdose and help restore breathing, more widely available.
Also moving is a “good Samaritan” bill that limits liability of someone who calls 911 to get help for an overdose victim, and a “Start Talking” initiative, which adds the subject of heroin to the health curriculum in schools.
Another critical development for this area, plans for a 12-bed, inpatient treatment center on Crystal Avenue, is moving forward. By year’s end, heroin addicts could be receiving treatment.
Clearly, heroin has Ohio’s attention. More lives will be lost before the epidemic is over, but opportunities for recovery are growing. The main challenge now is to make sure those who need the help get it.