A record number of Ohioans died from heroin-related overdoses in 2012, the state Department of Health said as it released the newest available figures for a problem that’s been called an epidemic and a public health crisis, and Highland County officials are not surprised.
The Times-Gazette recently took an in-depth look at the heroin epidemic in a three-part series produced by Civitas Media newspapers. This week, the state said that 680 people died of heroin overdoses in 2012, up from 426 deaths in 2011, a 60 percent increase, according to data released Friday and reported by the Associated Press.
The heroin increase also drove the overall number of fatal drug overdoses to a record of 1,272 deaths in 2012, up from 1,154 the previous year.
The state said the number of fatal prescription painkiller overdoses decreased for the first time since 2003, a drop attributed to a statewide crackdown on pill mills and the overprescribing of pain pills.
Heroin addiction has been increasing as prescription painkiller abusers turn to the cheaper and more readily available drug, and local officials agreed with that conclusion.
“Percocets (a form of oxycodone) are going for about $25 or $30 per pill” on the streets, said Highland County Sheriff Richard Warner, while heroin capsules can be obtained for about half that price.
A county-by-county breakdown from 2007-2012 provided by state health officials shows Highland County at or slightly below the state average of 13.9 accidental drug deaths per 100,000 population, and with fewer such deaths per capita than every surrounding county. Warner agreed that part of the reason for that result is the lack of a four-lane interstate highway here.
While not having an interstate highway in Highland County might deter economic development, it does keep drug runners from invading Highland County at the rate they attack surrounding counties.
The state’s figures are only through 2012, and Warner said the drug problem has only escalated in 2013 and so far in 2014 – and the public doesn’t always see the whole picture.
“Most of the (drug) deaths don’t make the news,” said Warner. “A lot of people don’t know what we’re facing here.” He said new drugs to revive overdose victims are preventing more overdoses from becoming fatal.
“Heroin is a problem you find in the younger people,” he said. “People in their 40s, 50s and 60s, heroin is not a big problem.”
Warner said that if more funding was available, additional patrol officers on the roads and more education to teenagers in high schools would make a difference.
Anneka Collins, the county prosecutor, agreed that educating young people is crucial to preventing future drug abusers, and the burden does not just fall on schools, but parents, too.
“Parents have got to talk to their kids at an earlier age,” she said, estimating that 90 percent of all criminal cases that come through the court system are drug related.
“Kids at an earlier age are doing drugs, and we’re not just talking about pot,” she said. One recent case involved an individual who said he began using heroin at age 13, she said.
She said drug abuse is not a victimless crime, because people will break into homes and commit theft to support their drug habit. And mothers abusing drugs results in drug-addicted children, she said.
“There is nothing sadder than a newborn child on a methadone (treatment) drip because mom did drugs for the whole pregnancy,” said Collins. She said that drug-addicted parents will feed their habit before feeding their children.
The prosecutor said that society needs to find a “happy medium” between incarceration and treatment, adding that court-ordered treatment does little good for someone who is not motivated to stay clean.
Statewide, “What we’re seeing is a significant number of people moving to a more acute phase of their addiction disorder,” said Orman Hall, director of the Governor’s Cabinet Opiate Action Team.
A decade of unrestricted prescribing of painkillers led to an addicted population, which in turn led to the heroin problem, said Christy Beeghley, program administrator for the Health Department’s Injury Prevention Program.
The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner released more recent statistics earlier in the year, announcing 195 heroin-related fatalities in 2013, up from 161 the year before. In 2007, 40 people in the Cleveland-area died of heroin-related overdoses.
Fatal drug overdoses remain the leading cause of accidental death in Ohio, above car crashes, a trend that began in 2007.
Attorney General Mike DeWine has called the heroin deaths an “epidemic” and created a statewide investigative unit to crack down on heroin dealers. U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach in Cleveland has labeled the problem a “public health crisis.”
Midway through 2011, Ohio enacted a law meant to reduce the number of pills-on-demand clinics where many addicts were receiving pain pills under questionable circumstances.
Authorities are optimistic that a law that took effect last month increasing access to a drug overdose antidote will reduce the number of deaths. The state is also testing a six-county drug court program that provides medication to addicts.
The state is also encouraged by a recent youth survey that found significant decreases in painkiller use by young Ohioans, Hall said.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins of the Associated Press contributed to this story.