The heroin epidemic in Ohio now kills one person in the state every five hours and kills more people each year than car accidents do. U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach says battling the epidemic is a top policing priority of the Justice Department in northern Ohio. The chances someone you know may be affected by this problem is probably greater than you think. One estimate suggested that as many as 40,000 to 70,000 people in the area may have an addiction issue with street heroin or opiate pills.
The death-dealing drug is cheap, widespread and merciless. And this year it will likely end more lives in the county than homicide. Recent figures from the Cuyahoga County medical examiner put the region on track this year to best its persistently record-breaking number of heroin deaths. During the first half of 2013, 93 county residents have slipped away after shooting, snorting or smoking the opiate. Another four fatally overdosed in the county, but resided outside Cuyahoga.
Gunshots, stabbings and other eruptions of violence ended 68 lives during the same period. The heroin epidemic rattles officials. “It’s killing people at an extraordinary high rate,” said Bill Denihan, CEO of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Cuyahoga County. “This used to be considered the inner city story. It’s not anymore. It’s everybody’s story.” On Tuesday, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald held a news conference with other local officials to reveal the latest heroin overdose numbers.
“We have to speak out loudly and frequently about this emerging public health crisis,” FitzGerald said. “We are in the middle of something that is very alarming.” Last year, heroin killed 161 people in the county. More than half of those deaths occurred in the suburbs, according County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Gilson. The number of heroin deaths in 2012 is a four-fold increase over 2007 statistics. Heroin supplanted cocaine in 2011 as the county’s deadliest drug, and its death toll continues to soar. Heroin is a synthetic opioid — a chemical compound that includes the morphine molecule cultivated from the opium poppy — first crafted by an English chemist in the late 19th Century. Western doctors at the time naively used heroin as a non-addictive replacement for morphine. It wasn’t until after rampant and unchecked heroin use during the early 1900s that doctors realized heroin metabolizes into morphine once it enters the brain.
The discovery led to decades of government regulation in the U.S., tamping down widespread heroin use. But the killer has come back hard. The number of heroin overdoses in Cuyahoga County continues to soar. Heroin is commonly sold as a white or brown powder, or a sticky “black tar” substance. The drug can be snorted, smoked or shot intravenously. The three methods quickly deliver the narcotic to the brain, where it attaches to opioid receptors and creates a surge of euphoria, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.