We’re halfway through the year and on target to reach 200 heroin deaths in Lorain County in 2017.
That number is as tragic as it sounds. Last year, coroner Stephen Evans watched the bodies of 131 victims pass through his office. That was a new record.
Unless there is a miracle before the end of 2017, he predicts the county’s deaths from overdoses will blow that number out of the water — spiking to 20 times higher than the 12.5 per year that was the norm from 2000 to 2009.
“I’ve run out of tears,” Evans said. “When you’re crying with the mom and dad that’s lost their kid, or the husband who lost his wife, or the children that lost their parents, you realize that these are all human beings.
“They’re just like you and me.”
Often, parents are unable to cope with the fact that their child abused heroin or other drugs. The coroner said they wrestle with denial.
He described one time he went to the scene of an overdose. The parents of a 19-year-old boy were persistent: “No, no he doesn’t do drugs. This is our son. We know our son. We swear to you. He’s in the National Honor Society. He’s got a college scholarship. We understand there are other kids, but not our son. He was captain of the football team!”
Evans compared it to telling an overweight person that their lifestyle is unhealthy. Until they have a heart attack, they wont’ do anything.
“You almost have to crash before you realize,” he said. “When we do revive people, it’s like asking them, ‘How would you like to have a do-over in your life?’ Your life could end today or your life could begin today.”
THE FACE OF ADDICTION
Ohio sits in the epicenter of the heroin epidemic, with West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania fighting the same battle.
You may imagine the typical user as homeless, unemployed, a loner junkie. Evans said that’s simply not the case — overdose victims are typically 20 to 40 years old, white, middle class, and suburban. Men and women number equally among the losses.
“It’s not a minority or lower socioeconomic class problem,” he said.
He said cities such as Amherst, Wellington, and Oberlin don’t enjoy any special immunity from addiction. Their residents are dying at the same rate, no matter whether they hail from an idyllic white picket fence town, large suburb, college town, or large city.
We are not running out of victims. For every one who dies, there are 800 others who are risk in Lorain County, Evans said.
A large slice of the population — one in every six people — is wrestling with addiction.
Many become addicted via the medicine cabinet, from legally-prescribed painkillers. If you take away the pills, people with addiction will go to the streets to get another dose.
When dealers started combining heroin last year with other drugs, Fentanyl became the number one killer.
Fentanyl is easier and cheaper to make, whereas heroin depends on farmers and growing seasons.
It’s also 10 times stronger than heroin, so dealers mix it or sell it pure, and a good buzz turns into an immediate overdose.
If Fentanyl continues to rule the drug world, it could lead to 10 overdoses a week in the county, Evans said.
It wouldn’t surprise him if we surpass 210 deaths this year.
What is the county’s runner-up drug for overdoses? Surprisingly, it’s cocaine.
Some heroin users switched to cocaine because they think it’s safer — they’re wrong. Last year, Evans counted 50 cocaine-related deaths.
BIG PHARMA’S ROLE
In the late 1800s, Bayer Pharmaceuticals debuted a “heroic” drug that was going to end the morphine and opium epidemic.
The company prided itself on the “safe and non-addictive” drug, Evans said. Pulling from the German word for “heroic” and “strong,” they called it heroin.
In 1995, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the producer of Oxycontin, did a study on narcotic pain pills that claimed the same message: They are safe and not addicting.
Oxycontin had a ball-of-lightning emergence in the health care marketplace and doctors were pushed to supply more medication because they were now being compensated on how well they treated patient’s pain.
By 2007, most drug overdoses were from prescription pills.
As the number of cases of addiction, overdoses, and deaths mounted, the U.S. Department of Justice took notice and charged Purdue more than $600 million in fines for misbranding the drug’s potential for abuse.
Painkillers are often not needed, Evans said.
When going to a doctor for a minor injury like a twisted ankle, he urges patients not to ask for Vicodin. Taking both Tylenol and Motrin provides just as much pain relief. Wrap it, ice it, and elevate it.
Evans said there needs to be greater focus on education to prevent young people from getting hooked on drugs, and how to seek additional treatment if addiction takes hold.
He said there needs to be less focus on enforcement and incarceration, that we “can’t arrest our way out of the problem.”
The coroner has given 40 talks throughout the county to educate people on prevention and rehabilitation. A common question he hears is, “Why don’t we just take the dealers out and shoot them?”
To Evans, the answer is simple.
Eighty percent of children start their drug habit from the home medicine cabinet. That means parents the first drug suppliers.
“It’s a problem because we have the drug dealers who are profit-motivated and the users who are addicted,” Evans said. “Sell something to people that’s addictive and you’ll have customers for the rest of your life.”
Heroin’s hold on the brain is so great that it takes about 35 weeks of treatment to stop addictive cravings. That length of rehab doesn’t exist.
Many addicts die after leaving a one-month rehab program because their brains still want drugs. It’s worse when people get thrown in jail, Evans said — behind bars, they’re slammed with an immediate withdrawal period.
“It drives me crazy. A guy’s been in jail for two months and the first day he’s out, he’s dead,” he said. “It’s like he was safer when he was in jail.”
Many judges send addicts to rehab as part of their parole. But when they are just going because they’re required to, and not because they want to get better, some will find ways to buy and sell drugs in the parking lot, Evans said.
Many kids he’s seen on the coroner’s table found their last drug dealer at a treatment center.
Another question Evans is repeatedly asked is, “Why do you want to save these drug addicts anyway?”
Again, a simple answer: “This is taking care of your family and my family,” he said.
Addicts are often people who either listened to their doctor or teens who succumbed to peer pressure. And truthfully, Evans said, we all belong to those two groups.
Not everybody who drinks becomes an alcoholic and not everybody who is prescribed Vicodin for their wisdom teeth becomes a narcotics addict.
How do we know who has the additive personality? We don’t, Evans said.
“People don’t think it’s that big of a problem,” he said. “Wait until you come home and you find your son not breathing on the floor. All of a sudden, you’re going to think it’s a big problem.”
There isn’t a cure-all tactic to get addicts clean, Evans said, but “we have to keep trying because these people are worth saving.”
It could happen to any one of us, he said, so it’s very hard to blame the victims.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.