For too long, people were hooked on denial about drug addiction, says drug counselor Kim Eberle.
As long as it was mainly blacks and Latinos dying, Eberle said many Americans saw heroin addiction as a moral failing that needed to be dealt with through imprisonment rather than a disease that needed to be treated.
“The landscape of those people addicted has changed dramatically and sadly speaks to us as a nation. Now we’re awake,” said Eberle, leader of Let’s Get Real, a Vermilion nonprofit, antidrug group, at a March 30 meeting at the Salvation Army headquarters in Oberlin.
“When you have actors dying, white people dying, people that have some money dying, then we’re like, ‘Oh, my goodness. What’s going on?’ It was OK to pretend it was just some black kid under the bridge and, ‘Oh, look at their problem.’”
The summit was the latest in dozens of meetings held in Lorain County since the nation’s heroin epidemic hit the county in 2012.
That year, there were 60 fatal overdoses countywide compared to 22 each in 2010 and 2011.
In 2013, a record 67 people died, followed by 60 in 2014 and 65 last year.
As of March 30, 21 have died so far in 2016, said Dawn Quarick, Lorain County coroner’s office medical office coordinator.
Lorain County coroner Stephen Evans said he didn’t have a breakdown of how many victims were from Amherst, Oberlin, and Wellington where we publish newspapers. However, Evans said victims were from all communities in the county.
The county’s death spike mirrored a trend in Ohio and the rest of the nation. Opiate deaths have quadrupled nationally since 2000.
The heroin epidemic was partially triggered by overuse of presciption painkillers beginning in the 1990s.
Most addicts begin abusing painkillers before switching to heroin, which is far less expensive than pills and easy to buy on the street. A crackdown in 2011 on Ohio “pill mills” — where doctors unscrupulously handed out prescriptions — also pushed addicts to heroin.
The street value of popular opiods like oxymorphone, commonly sold as Opana, is about $1 per milligram, and one pill is often 80 milligrams. A bindle of heroin, about 0.34 of a gram, costs $10 to $20, according to police. A gram of heroin costs $150 to $180.
Pharmaceutical company profits soared with the increase in prescriptions. The pain management market generated $11 billion in revenue in 2009 and is expected to generate $15.3 billion this year, according to Frost & Sullivan, a global research and consulting company.
Big Pharma pushed hard to make big profits. A 2012 Wall Street Journal article documented how opiod makers like Purdue Pharma, which introduced OxyContin in 1996, helped pay for a study by the Federation of State Medical Boards encouraging doctors and state medical boards to prescribe painkillers.
In 2007, three Purdue Phrama executives pleaded guilty to misbranding OxyContin as less addictive and subject to abuse than other painkillers and paid a $635 million fine.
Purdue Pharma, whose website said it has committed “substantial resources” to combatting opoid abuse, made $35 billion in sales of OxyContin since it began making it, according to Forbes Magazine. The company has about $3 billion in annual overall revenue, mostly from OxyContin.
The epidemic is also due to a spike in opium production in Afghanistan, which the United Nations says produces 90 percent of illegal opiates.
Despite $8.4 billion spent by the U.S. on drug interdiction since the 2001 invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, there have been “record and rising levels of opium production,” according to John Sopko, U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan.
“Record opium cultivation and production clearly shows that we are not winning the war on drugs in Afghanistan,” Sopko said in a May 5, 2015, speech. “Of course, the U.S. government annnounced its own war on drugs in 1971, almost 45 years ago, and we haven’t won that one either.”
Eberle sees the casualties of the drug war regularly in her job and combatting addiction is also deeply personal. A recovering alcoholic, Eberle recalled using CPR twice to revive her son from opiate overdoses. She said her 31-year-old son is now a recovering addict.
The experience made Eberle empathize with addicts and their families and inspired her to found the all-volunteer group in 2013.
She said overcoming the stigma of addiction — the belief that it is a choice rather than a disease — is key to recovery.
“How they got there, from our standpoint and our mission, is extremely less important than how we help them now,” Eberle told those who attended the meeting. “I have to always, always remember that when people stumble into our office looking the way they do, that this is somebody’s mother, brother, daughter, cousin, and they didn’t start out this way.”
Eberle, whose group provides counseling and support to addicts and their families, said recovery frequently includes relapses.
A study of 109 addicts published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health found that 91 percent said they relapsed with 59 percent relapsing within a week of leaving residential drug treatment.
Eberle said friends and relatives of addicts often enable relapses because of their own unhealthy lifestyles, or by naively giving addicts gift cards or money believing they won’t use it to get high.
Addicts want to stay clean, she said, but are obssesed with getting high because their brains have been chemically altered to crave opiates.
Those fighting addiction are also often more predisposed to become hooked. People with a family history of addiction are 40 to 60 percent more likely to become hooked than people who try drugs and lack a family history of addiction, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Eberle’s group promotes the Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous 12-step program involving abstinence, counseling, and religious faith. Critics say 12-step programs are less effective and scientifically proven than medically-assisted treatment, which Eberle’s group doesn’t take a position on.
Medically-assisted treatment includes use of Suboxone or Subutex, brand names for buprenorphine and naxolone — synthetic opioids taken in tab form that block opiate cravings.
Proponents say buprenorphine is less addictive and debilitating than methadone, a liquid, synthetic narcotic. Another treatment is through injections of Vivitrol, the brand name for naltrexone, an opiod antagonist.
The lack of treatment options is a huge obstacle for addicts, say treatment proponents.
A 16-bed facility in Lorain run by The LCADA Way (formerly the Lorain County Alcohol and Drug Abuse agency) is the only in-patient treatment in the county.
Addicts, some who lack cars, are forced to visit neighboring counties for in-patient treatment. Eberle said addicts often lack a support system after treatment.
The Salvation Army provides some support. Stephanie Walker, a life skills program assistant with the Salvation Army in Oberlin, said three of her six clients are recovering addicts. They include a 27-year-old Afghanistan War veteran who got hooked on painkillers after a back injury.
Services include helping clients get their birth certificates and driver’s licenses, giving them rides to court and rehab, and helping them get jobs.
“We can’t just treat the drug and the addiction,” Walker said. “We need to go further.”
The meeting was sought by members of the Kipton Community Church in response to three fatal overdoses of relatives of church members this year, said church elder Ken Nimon. While attitudes are changing about addiction, Nimon said the denial remains difficult to overcome.
“People are still saying, ‘Not in my house. Not in my family,’” he said. “That’s terrible if it happened next door, but I don’t have to worry about it.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Photos by Evan Goodenow | Civitas Media Drug paraphernalia turned in to Let’s Get Real, a Vermilion nonprofit group assisting addicts and their families. Stephanie Walker, a life skills program assistant with the Salvation Army in Oberlin, works with recovering addicts through her group’s prisoner reentry program.