Prescription drug abuse has played a large part in Ohio’s opioid epidemic, but Lorain County prosecutor Dennis Will said much of it also an effort by South American cartels to flood America with cheap, pure heroin.
Having to inject heroin through a syringe to get high used to turn many off from trying the drug due to fear of HIV and other diseases transmitted by needles, he recently told Wellington Kiwanis members, addressing the addiction that plagues rural and urban areas alike. Now the drug’s purity in powder and pill form has made it seem less risky.
“Heroin years ago was about six percent pure and no one wanted to use it,” he said. “You had to get it into your system in the quickest way possible by shooting it up. People didn’t want to deal with needles because of things like AIDS and hepatitis.”
Will sees the purification of heroin as similar to the way crack cocaine evolved.
“When cocaine really started to catch on in the late 80s and early 90s, it was more or less a rich person’s drug,” he said. “Chemists then worked in Columbia to figure out how they could make cocaine cheaper and also more pure. Crack cocaine was the result.”
Heroin manufacturers felt that if they spent more money to make their product more desirable — namely, needle-free and in pill form — it would be far more profitable.
“People can put heroin on a piece of tin foil, light it, inhale it, and get high,” Will said. “All of the people who were only turned off of heroin by needles are now doing it. These are predominantly Caucasian people in affluent suburbs and rural areas. Those selling it are still usually associated with inner-city drug trafficking. Many times they don’t use the product. They’re just in it for profit.”
When it comes to overprescribing medication, Will didn’t deny it was a factor, but said it shouldn’t overshadow other issues.
“I saw cocaine run wild in this country to the point where we had to build more prisons,” he said. “I never saw a doctor write a prescription for cocaine. What drove that epidemic was the availability of cocaine at a reasonable price and a reasonable method to ingest it.”
He said the speed in which everyday people can go from normal lives to sitting in a drug house is also a similarity between the crack cocaine and heroin epidemics.
“We used to raid houses years ago and find stalwarts of our society sitting there on the floor,” he said. “They take their entire paycheck earned from well-paying jobs and use it on these drugs.”
Lorain County coroner Stephen Evans championed the idea of emergency responders carrying the drug naloxone to treat overdose victims on the spot. Since then, police all across the county have revived overdose victims on the edge of death.
Will said the idea doesn’t come without unintended consequences.
“Dr. Evans and I have responded to many overdoses and it’s very hard to get there in a timely fashion,” he said. “His idea has proven to be very successful. It’s proven so successful that people who overdose are not afraid to go back and overdose again shortly thereafter.”
Will said when contaminants like fentanyl are factored in, it can take up to seven doses of nalaxone to save someone who is overdosing. Area police reports have documented even more doses, as many as a dozen, being given to suspected OD victims whose faces and limbs were blue from lack of oxygen, which is how heroin kills.
“We’re dealing with fentanyl and an even more powerful ingredient called carfentanyl, which is used to tranquilize elephants,” he said. “Don’t ask me why this is being put into heroin. The best case scenario is a user getting tremendously sick. The usual case is an overdose. Drug dealers usually don’t know what they have. It’s not like there’s quality control in drug dealing.”
Many groups want to reduce Ohio’s dependence on prisons when it comes to drug sentencing, Will said. But he said Lorain County and other areas don’t have the rehabilitation services needed to make those plans work.
“People want to close prisons and they don’t want to build new ones because they’re costly,” he said. “I agree completely that they’re costly to run. The problem is how many times those who enter rehab relapse. Where does the cost and resources come from to care for these people?”
There is no simple answer to deal with the epidemic, he said.
“People ask me if I think the answer is to put people in prison,” he said. “I don’t think that. However, I also don’t think the problem can be solved strictly with treatment. You have to give tough love, play hard ball, and hold people’s feet to the fire.”
Will said a growing sense of financial desperation among middle class Americans could also be playing a part in the epidemic.
“A number of socioeconomic factors are coming into play,” he said. “It drives people to use. The people who are selling it know that and are using it to their advantage when marketing it.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.
Jonathan Delozier | Wellington Enterprise Lorain County prosecutor Dennis Will speaks to the Wellington Kiwanis Club about factors that contribute to Ohio’s heroin epidemic.