After watching National Geographic's “Hardcore Heroin” episode of the series Drugs, Inc., I better understood the urgency of combating the heroin epidemic now sweeping Ohio. What is particularly troubling about the heroin trade -- from its origins in the poppy fields of Mexico to one of the major distribution points in Columbus, Ohio -- is the relentless strength of the cartel operation. Mexico's heroin production has quadrupled since 2006, and due to increasing demand in places like Ohio, it shows no sign of slowing down.
In Mexico, government officials work to eradicate poppy plantations in a pitifully ineffective effort to eradicate the natural source of heroin. Despite their efforts, the officials who are not being bribed by the cartel have little effect on the flow of the profitable export as an inexhaustible army of mules continue a highly structured illegal enterprise that guarantees the product continues to pour across the border and into America.
Foiling border patrols and enforcement officers, smugglers then begin a relatively unimpeded journey of thousands of miles to deliver the heroin to dealers and distributors like the Ohio Heroin Outlaws in Columbus. On its way to consummation by an Ohio addict, each exchange of the product skyrockets the worth of the cargo. Each human exchange is responsible for paying their fair share that enables continuous importation. Demand drives the sales, and the penalty for unpaid bills anywhere along the way is death.
American highway such as Interstates 71, 74, and 75 have become open trade routes that supply misery and death to the tune of five overdose fatalities a day in the Buckeye State. The State Department of Health said newest available figures for a problem confirms heroin addiction as an epidemic and a public health crisis.
The swell in the killing fields of state drug addiction, directly linked in cause to the foreign importation of heroin, grows and grows. A record number of Ohioans died from heroin-related overdoses in 2012. The state says 680 people died of heroin overdoses in 2012, up from 426 deaths in 2011, a 60 percent increase.
In the emergency departments of Cincinnati and Hamilton County hospitals alone, heroin overdoses skyrocketing by 670% between 2004 and 2010. 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.
Even though something as terrible as heroin dependency is unimaginable to the vast majority of the public, the fact that heroin is a potent opiate that is highly available, relatively cheap, and highly addictive all create an unforgiving love/hate relationship with its users. The high efficacy (the ability to produce the desired effect) of the substance adds to the user's satisfaction.
The heroin product itself is much more potent than in the past. When people buy heroin on the street from dealers, they don't know what purity they are getting, and a lot of overdoses result from this lack of knowledge. Dealers sell more or less powerful heroin at their own whim of how they wish to "cut" their product with various fillers.
As prescription opioids become increasingly unavailable, addicts turn to heroin, an even cheaper alternative to the same high. In Ohio, the high achieved by using heroin for $50-$60 is equivalent to spending hundreds of dollars on prescription pain meds. Just as Ohio is making progress in the battle against prescription drug abuse, it’s getting overrun by heroin, Attorney General Mike DeWine said.
Statistics compiled by his office show at least 11 Ohioans die each week from heroin-related overdoses, with the real total of heroin-related deaths likely to be even higher.“We have a heroin epidemic,” DeWine said in a news conference announcing formation of a Heroin Unit in his office. “There is a heroin problem in every single part of the state. If you don’t think you have a problem with heroin in your community, you’re probably wrong.”
The Department of Justice 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment found: “New users frequently overdose because they are unfamiliar with their tolerance levels; users resuming heroin use after prolonged absences often restart at their prior dosage level, even though their tolerance may have declined in the interim.”
Enforcement seems to fight a losing battle in attempts to curb the heroin importation. According to an Ohio State Highway Patrol report, troopers seized 27,875 grams of heroin in the first six months of 2012. The report indicates the amount of heroin seized is a 327 percent increase over the same period in 2011.
Ohio Attorney DeWine has created an investigative unit of his office to specifically combat a statewide heroin epidemic. The Attorney General's Heroin Unit will include investigators, lawyers, and drug abuse awareness specialists to help local leaders and law enforcement fight the heroin problem in their community. He has allocated funds of more than $1 million for the new effort.
"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," DeWine said. "The numbers tell a different story."
But, even with increased aid to enforcement, even DeWine realizes the help is not enough.
“Law enforcement is not going to solve the problem alone. The people in this room (local law enforcement officers from across the state) are not going to solve it. We can help, play a role, go after the bad guys, but ultimately we have a consumption problem. We have people who want to buy this stuff, and it’s cheap,” DeWine stated.
(Brian Bondus. “Heroin epidemic can’t be won by law enforcement alone, DeWine says.”
Dayton Daily News. November 19, 2013)
Tom Stickrath, head of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, testified at a congressional forum on drug abuse. “It’s important to remember heroin is just not a Cincinnati, Columbus, or Cleveland problem,” he said.
“Today’s stereotypical heroin user is a middle-class suburbanite under the age of 30. It infiltrates our communities and is threatening our youth by infiltrating a savvy business model.
“One call can get you heroin delivered faster than a pizza.”
In some good news, a new law will require Ohio schools to teach children about the dangers of prescription painkillers, a leading gateway drug to heroin abuse. The Governor's Cabinet Opiate Action Team must recommend lessons to the state Education Department by July 1, under the bill signed into law last month by Gov. John Kasich.
The law recognizes that students run the risk of heroin abuse at ever younger ages. Nationally, one in five high school students use painkillers without a prescription, while about half of young people who get hooked on heroin became addicted to prescription painkillers first. It is hoped that new efforts to curb early prescription abuse will also cut heroin addiction.
The Bottom Line
Heroin addiction in Scioto County is real, and despite major efforts to stop the epidemic in Ohio, the monumental flow of the product from Mexico and from the Middle East will continue until the local demand stops. Governor Kasich knows this; Attorney General DeWine knows this; all branches of federal, state, and local law enforcement know this; and, if you don't know this and educate those you love about the dangers of using the substance EVEN ONCE, you and your loved ones face a substantial risk of becoming victims of opiates.
Over a five year period, from 2007 to 2012, Scioto County remained near the top in unintended overdose deaths, just slightly behind Brown County. During that five-year time span, the average crude rate of unintended overdose deaths per 100,000 population showed Brown County at an average of 29.4, while Scioto County was at 27.4. Using the same measuring line, the numbers based on age-adjusted rates showed Brown County with 29.6 and Scioto County at 29.2. Both were two times the state average.
(Frank Lewis. “Scioto County placed 2nd highest in state drug-deaths.”
Portsmouth Daily Times. April 17, 2014)
But, perhaps most disturbing in the horror story is heroin's popularity with youth. According to a report from the Ohio Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services, the frightening truth is that heroin addiction is becoming more common at a younger age. CEO Paul Coleman of Maryhaven in Columbus, one of the biggest treatment centers in Ohio, reports a frightening drop in the age of heroin addicts. Many patients there are under age 18.
One of the particularly “hot” areas for heroin addiction is Lancaster, approximately 30 miles southeast of Columbus, and in Toledo, first-time heroin use “reportedly occurs in users as young as 13-14 years.”
(Andrew Welsh-Huggins. “Ohio Heroin Abuse Worse, First-Time Users Younger.”
CBS Cleveland. March 27, 2012)
Even more shocking is the addicted unborn count. Statistics provided by Children's Hospital in Cincinnati show during the past six years, the number of newborns in Greater Cincinnati exposed to some kind of opiate during pregnancy, from prescription narcotics to heroin, sky-rocketed from 59 in 2009 to 659 in 2013. In fact, in 2013 close to 200 babies, including 78 babies who were exposed specifically to heroin, had to be treated for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. Through the end of June, 2014, 414 babies were born after having been exposed to opioids – it is almost certain the trend will continue.
(Todd Dykes. “Heroin Addiction Grips Tri-State's Most Vulnerable Population – Newborns.”
WLWT News. October 30, 2014)
We can't eliminate a terrible epidemic that is already upon us. Trying to “wish away” or to ignore the damage that exists will do nothing to improve the situation. We must focus on proven strategies to stop the insanity of heroin dependence and addiction. Only when Mexico and other opium-poppy-growing regions find no profitable market in Scioto County will the cartels cease to impact our state-lowest health ranking.
“Hardcore Heroin” is really all about “Hardcore Appalachia.” The addictive nature of our area is evident in other health abuses such as high rates of alcoholism and tobacco dependency. Even the spirit of independence and isolationism so long believed to be necessary for self-sufficient survival here now contributes negatively to our stubborn nature.
So many of us have become conditioned to accepting undue stress and negative conditions as we blame the rest of our country for branding us the “asshole of America.” Strong Appalachians who overcome their environment do so in the midst of those more than willing to bow to the stereotypes of hillbilly happiness with lifelong poverty, joblessness, and living on the dole. Addiction, since the days of moonshining, has taken its place in the “Copperhead Road” mentality of the populace.
Those who accept this fanciful ignorance disgrace the true tradition of Appalachian living. No pioneer or warrior can willingly poison himself and his own. I abhor the drug but I also detest those who choose to profit by it and to live enslaved to it in an unacceptable lifestyle.
We must not accept the sorrow, the broken homes, the crime, the mental illness, the crippling affliction, and the death heroin is sure to continue to provide. I beg anyone considering finding artificial escape in the form of a syringe or in any other means of delivery to STOP before opiates transform your body and soul into a vile substance without love and care.
The intoxicating “milk” of the poppy flower … the greed … the delivery … the profit … all depend on the user, not on the criminal enterprises that seek to addict all those who pay. Drugs will always be available to those who wish to abuse them. Every individual must make a commitment to resist any and all temptations to put the substance into his or her body.
It is time to see the truth: we make ourselves live with addiction. Until we all put education, treatment, recovery, enforcement, government, and families on the same page, we will suffer greater and greater losses. Heroin and all who deal in its many criminal enterprises intend to destroy lives and possess souls. Five overdose deaths in Ohio every day = unacceptable body counts in a war of attrition.