A record number of Ohioans died using heroin in 2012, reflecting the unintended consequences of a statewide crackdown on over-prescribed painkillers that pushed some users to heroin to feed their addiction, according to local health experts and law enforcement officials.
Over 100 people died a heroin-related death across the Miami Valley in 2012 and 36 occurred in Clark County, according to statistics the Springfield News-Sun obtained Friday from the Ohio Department of Health. That is the highest number of overdoses the county has seen in more than a decade.
“This is an epidemic, and I don’t know how else to describe it,” said Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly. “People are dying from heroin.”
The issue is serious enough that deputies are considering carrying Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of heroin and other opiates, in some cruisers.
There have also been at least three cases in which inmates overdosed on heroin shortly after they were released from area jails, Kelly added. Part of the reason, he said, is that the average stay of 40 days allows inmates to become detoxified from the drugs. When they begin the habit again, their bodies are no longer prepared for the strong doses. In at least one case, Kelly said a former inmate overdosed within hours of being released.
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office is now working with Clark County Coroner Richard Marsh, and is planning to distribute letters to inmates as they are released to warn them about the dangers of an overdose.
“We want to try to do everything we can to try to stop this,” Kelly said.
A total of 680 state residents died from heroin-related overdoses in 2012 — up 60 percent from 2011 and the most deaths from heroin ever recorded in one year.
The heroin deaths represent a dramatic shift in the nature of drug overdoses in Ohio, which for most of the past decade were driven primarily by the abuse of powerful prescription painkillers.
Drug overdose deaths in Ohio rose 366 percent between 2000 and 2012, and prescription drugs were the largest part of the increase, according to the health department.
But in 2012, deaths from prescription drugs declined for the first time since 2003 after the state passed stiff laws against pharmaceuticals being dispensed in massive amounts a couple of years earlier.
Prescription drug deaths fell 12 percent to 697 in 2012 from 789 2011, according to the state data, which showed deaths from heroin overdoses skyrocketed at the same time.
Those deaths included more than 100 people who died from heroin-related overdoses across the Miami Valley.
Fatal drug overdoses remain the leading cause of accidental death in Ohio, above car crashes, a trend that began in 2007.
In Clark County, addiction to the drug is also fueling other crimes, especially theft and other property crimes as users try to get additional cash to support their habit, Kelly said.
“They’re stealing laundry detergent. They’re stealing meat … anything and everything that they can steal for cash to get heroin,” said Kelly.
The problem is affecting every corner of the county, even some of the most rural areas.
“These are young people, most times 30- to 40-years-old and they have children,” Kelly said.
Ohio is not alone in high numbers of heroin deaths. In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick last month declared a public health emergency in response to heroin overdoses and opioid addiction. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin dedicated his entire State of the State address this year to the problem. Minnesota authorities have seen a tenfold increase in the number of people seeking treatment for heroin addiction.
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.”
Authorities are optimistic that a law that took effect last month increasing access to a drug overdose antidote will reduce the number of deaths.
Regardless, drug rehabilitation experts said there are actions affected people and families can take to rid a heroin addiction.
“It’s never too late and there is treatment, and there are people that are much more specialized and knowledgeable about addiction now that they can help almost anybody, at any time,” said Dr. Jack Gouda, Wright Path Recovery Center.
2012 drug overdose deaths in southwest Ohio, by county:
Source: Ohio Department of Health