Heroin: The Epidemic

It doesn’t start out with deceit and theft. Nor does it begin with making your connection and injecting the fix as your children watch from the back seat of the car. In fact, most heroin addicts’ short journeys to darkness and desperation begin with a legitimate visit to a doctor.

Society’s dependence on prescription drugs – especially pain killers and muscle relaxers – has created what Ohio Attorney General Michael DeWine calls “an epidemic” where a solid 70 percent of drug busts in the state are now opioid-related. According to a report citing information from the DEA and other federal and state agencies, in 2010 alone 692 million doses of opiates like Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, methadone, morphine, codeine, hydromorphone, buprenorphine, fentanyl base and meperidine were distributed to retail pharmacies. Common names for some of these include Vicodan, OxyContin, Percocet and Demerol.

The report puts that large number in perspective. This is enough for 60 doses per every person living in Ohio; 1.8 million doses per day; 79,000 doses per hour; 1,316 doses per minute. Every second 22 people are taking one of the above-mentioned pills. These numbers are for assumedly legitimate prescriptions ordered by doctors.

When patients have recovered from their illnesses or surgeries and can no longer get the medications to which their bodies have become accustomed (and addicted,) they seek out other sources-dealers, who peddle stolen and illegally manufactured pharmaceuticals, and “pill mills,” often operating under the guise of pain management clinics that have relaxed prescription policies. A Google search of “pill mills Ohio” brings up more than 100 locations in the Columbus area alone. DeWine says that eliminating pill mills is crucial to crippling the growing heroin problem and adds that surrounding states are facing the same issues.

As the physical addiction takes hold, the body requires more drugs more often. This is the nature of opiates. Prescription drugs, however, are comparatively expensive, especially since the demand has been increasing steadily during the past decade. Enter, heroin, a morphine-based Schedule I narcotic readily supplied by Mexican drug cartels.

Although opium poppies were cultivated in Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years ago, Diacetylmorphine (heroin) was first derived from the opium poppy only about 100 years ago, first by a British chemist in 1874 and then by a German chemist in 1897. Both were looking for morphine alternatives. C.R. Alder Wright’s experiments in the UK yielded a drug that had severe effects on test animals: fear, quickened respiration then irregular heartbeat, salivation and loss of muscle control. He did not pursue its development.

Felix Hoffmann worked for the German pharmacology company that was the predecessor to today’s Bayer and was directed to develop codeine by synthesizing opium. The company sought a milder, less addictive alternative to morphine. Instead, what he created was actually stronger and twice as addictive. It metabolized into morphine when ingested, but the company didn’t realize this when they marketed it as a cough suppressant, morphine substitute and cure for morphine addiction. The name “Heroin” came from a German word for heroic or strong because soldiers using it charged at enemy lines even as those enemies attacked.

From 1898 to 1910 the drug was sold for general consumer use. By 1924, as governments and companies became aware of heroin’s potency and adverse effects, the drug was banned from manufacture or sale in the United States. The Controlled Substance Act of 1970 made heroin a Schedule I narcotic that is illegal to possess without special licensing from the DEA. The United Kingdom still uses heroin for medical treatment.

Traditionally Afghanistan has been the world’s leading producer and exporter of heroin with an estimated 87 percent market share in 2004. However, a fungus destroyed the opium crops there in 2009, and India is now the top producer-and consumer-of heroin, a $1.4 billion industry.

Heroin in the Ohio Valley generally originates in Mexico according to Martins Ferry Police Chief and Commander of the Belmont County Drug Task Force John McFarland. This area sees the standard white type of the drug, also, rather than the more exotic brown and “black tar” varieties. Some of the nicknames for heroin hark back to the 1960’s and ’70’s such as “smack,” “H” and “horse,” but McFarland adds that, because of the accessibility of information and evidence on cell phones and computers, dealers will use their own code words when talking with buyers, words that may not have anything to do with the drug’s real name. Parents should be aware of this.

Part of the problem and danger with heroin, as with many drugs, is that the potency is inconsistent. It is generally cut, or mixed, with other substances to stretch the pure drug and make more money. Additional substances can include lesser drugs like aspirin, products like powdered cleanser or, as in the cause of 23 deaths in Pittsburgh earlier this year, fentanyl. Fentanyl is another opiate that is 10 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Addicts have no idea what they are buying, how strong the drug is or if this will be their last fix.

McFarland says that marijuana is definitely a gateway drug or precursor to heroin, but in most instances prescription drug addiction is the doorway. Barnesville Police Chief David Norris notes that until about two years ago there were few arrests for heroin and prescription drugs. He says the growth of the local market brought in out-of-towners from Cleveland and Pittsburgh who set up shop in and around small towns in rural Belmont County.

“We’ve seen cases of other drugs here and there in the past,” says Norris. “But this is different. This trend is up over the last couple of years, and it doesn’t take long to see the results.”

Aside from the physical effects of addiction and deaths from overdoses, “the results” Norris mentions are other undesirable increases: domestic violence, prostitution, theft and child neglect. The Belmont County Drug Task Force seized more than $30,000 during the past year in cash and stolen goods.

“Five years ago almost all local drug arrests were for coke and crack [both cocaine.] Now almost all of them have ties to people out of the area,” explains McFarland. “I’ve seen young women and mothers get involved with prostitution to get heroin. Abuse is up. Child protective services have been a gigantic help, but they are overwhelmed from the cases related to drugs.”

Both McFarland and Norris stress the importance of reaching youth about the dangers of heroin before they become addicted and the importance of vigilance on the parents’ parts to watch for any signs of changing behavior.

“I’ve seen a 17 year old with track marks on his arms. Watch every move your child makes,” says McFarland. “I’m a parent, and I do it. I look around their rooms, ask them questions. If they think I’m mean, so be it. Look for the signs: missing items, change in behavior and appearance; know who he’s with.”

Punishment for possession is a felony. A first offense with no criminal record may involve drug court, treatment and probation. McFarland says that the charge may be expunged from the perpetrator’s record if drug tests are continuously clean. Otherwise, the sentence depends on the quantity of opiates found in possession. It could result in a maximum sentence of 20 to 25 years in federal prison.

To keep drugs off the streets and to dispose of them properly, the Drug Task Force has installed “no questions asked” drop boxes at four police stations. These the specially designed lock-boxes are sponsored by the Belmont County Sheriff’s Department, Martins Ferry Police Department, Barnesville Hospital, Morristown Pharmacy, East Ohio Regional Hospital, Riesbeck’s Market and Chirpas Auto Body and are built by students at Belmont College. The program netted 300 pounds of prescription and over the counter drugs in four months. Boxes are currently located at the police departments in Barnesville, Bethesda, St. Clairsville and Bridgeport. On April 26, sites in Ohio collected more than 14 tons (28,466 pounds) of drugs on National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day.

Local police forces have boosted their manpower, training and attention toward anti-drug efforts, and Norris wants to assure dealers that their activities are on the radar and that their selling days are numbered.

His advice to buyers is, “Don’t even think about trying heroin. Once you do, you’re life is ruined. You’ll never be cured. If you live, you’ll be in and out of rehab the rest of your life.”

“The worst part is losing everything. With drugs you lose your family, your house, your job, everything in your life,” adds McFarland. “Eventually you lose your life.”

Valenti can be reached at gvalenti@timesleaderonline.com.