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March 20, 2014

Cuyahoga County addresses heroin epidemic

By Travis Raymond

The heroin problem in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, which has been steadily growing in recent years, has escalated into an epidemic.

During the 1990’s and 2000’s, opiate painkiller prescriptions and abuses skyrocketed in Ohio as they did all over the country.  In many cases, painkillers like Oxycontin served as a gateway drug and introduced users to opiate addiction. 

Since the crackdown on prescription drug abuses in 2011, heroin has become cheaper and easier to attain than drugs like Oxycontin.  Because of factors like ease of access, in many cases addicts switch to heroin in order to feed their addiction, according to Dr. Thomas Gilson, Cuyahoga County’s medical examiner.

The crossover trend from prescription pills to heroin is one of the factors causing heroin related deaths in Cuyahoga County to quadruple since 2007.   The number of heroin-related fatalities in the county has been on an alarmingly steady yearly rise since then.
In 2007, 40 people died from heroin overdose in Cuyahoga County.  Last year 195 people lost their lives to heroin in the county.  Authorities expect at least another 200 overdose deaths in the county this year. 

When DEA Spokesman Rusty Payne spoke to the Cleveland Stater late last year, he warned about the growing danger of heroin locally and nationally.

“Heroin is readily available, very cheap, and on the rise in America,” Payne said.
Hoping to counter the rising tide of narcotics, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty introduced the “Let’s Face It” campaign last month. 

The campaign aims to raise local awareness about heroin as an immediate danger using television commercials and the new informational website www.letsfaceheroin.com.  In addition to statistics and information on the startling rise of heroin use and overdoses in the area, the website provides support hotline numbers for the United Way and Frontline Services Crisis.

McGinty’s efforts join those of the Cuyahoga County’s Board of Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) in trying to disseminate information through media sources. 

The ADAMHS was also among the sponsors of Cleveland Clinic’s summit addressing heroin late last year as the crisis in Cleveland was beginning to enter the public consciousness.  The summit was called “Heroin: A Crisis Facing Our Entire Community” and included representatives from various local and national law enforcement, judicial, health and medical agencies.

Earlier this month, heroin laced with the chemical fentanyl, a dangerous cocktail responsible for a rash of overdoses and fatalities in Lorain County last fall, caused the deaths of three people in one week, according to Cleveland police.

Authorities hope that the expanded use of naloxone, a life-saving medication used to reverse opiate overdose, will help to slow the steady rise of heroin-related deaths in the county.