Communities need to wake up as drugs sweep across nationSome people have trouble wrapping their arms around the thought of this nation experiencing a growing heroin problem.
That was a bad page in the history of the 1960s drug culture. It went out of style right along with bell-bottom pants and tie-dyed shirts. The drug was simply too dangerous – even for the most fearless of hippies.
But decades later it has quietly slipped back onto our streets, largely because it provides an alternative to prescription pills and can be purchased relatively cheaply. The worst thing about its return is that it is more potent and deadlier than ever and more peoople then ever before are using it.
Graham Atkinson, the sheriff of Surry County, N.C., is matter of fact when he tells you one of two things will happen to someone who becomes addicted to heroin today.
“People involved in its use either get arrested, or they overdose and die,” he said.
Atkinson was among the many people interviewed by Civitas Media as its nearly 100 newspapers, located in 12 states, examined the face of heroin today. It found a drug that lures the wealthy, courts the middle class and welcomes the poor. Men and women, young and old, are seduced. It's being found in large cities, small towns and rural areas.
“Communities need to wake up. If you don't think you have a problem, you are probably wrong,” said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. Data his office has gathered suggests 11 people die in Ohio every week from a heroin overdose.
DeWine calls the problem an epidemic, as do his cohorts in Pennsylvania, Illinois and West Virginia. It's in these more northern states where the problem has its deepest roots. Drug abuse problems in Southern states like Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas continue to be more focused on meth and prescription pills, although authorities there fear that heroin soon will be knocking on their door.
“It's sad to say, but when we reduce the supply of pills is when you will see heroin,” said Jeff Sharpe, the police chief in Middlesboro, Ky. “Right now there appears to be enough pills around to keep them (users) satisfied.”
The heroin abuse problem comes with its side effects.
“What's difficult is the people often steal from their own families to get drug money, and family members are reluctant to turn them in,” said David Claus, a municipal prosecutor in Bellevue, Ohio.
In the affluent Dayton, Ohio, suburb of Beavercreek, organized retail theft rings use individuals to steal in exchange for drugs and/or cash to buy drugs.
“These rings have recruited individuals to steal merchandise and then return it for gift cards. Once they turn over the gift cards to the recruiters, they receive their heroin as payment,” said Beavercreek Police Chief Dennis Evers. Always shocking are the stories of people who die from heroin overdoses. In St. Claire County, Ill., Judge Michael Cook admitted he was a heroin addict and resigned from the bench. The admission came after fellow Judge Joseph Christ died of a cocaine overdose at a hunting lodge. A year later in neighboring Pike County, outdoorswoman and prominent business owner Shanda Lopez died of an overdose.
The heroin problem comes at a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that overdosing is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, accounting for more deaths than traffic fatalities or gun homicides and suicides. Fatal overdoses from opiate medications such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone have quadrupled since 1999, accounting for an estimated 16,651 deaths in 2010.
Police chiefs such as W.H. Holbrook of Huntington, W.Va., note that “we know we can't arrest our way out of this problem.”
Ideally, health professionals and police urge the need for early intervention programs to educate children about the dangers of drugs. In the case of addiction, continued treatment is needed.
“You've got to take a multi-faceted approach to this to really be successful. I think communities all across the nations are realizing that,” said Portsmouth (Ohio) Police Chief Robert Ware.
But at least one judge sees it differently. Madison County (Ohio) Common Pleas Judge Eamon Costello boldly disagrees.
“I can only think of one case where treatment solved a heroin addiction,” the judge said.
He estimates 80 percent of felony cases in his court are heroin related. That number increases to 90 percent when it comes to property crimes such as burglary, theft and breaking and entering.
Attacking the source
The other method of stopping the problem is attacking it at its source – the dealers.
The amount of heroin seized at the Mexican border by U.S. law enforcement agencies increased nearly four times from 2008 to 2012, said Joseph Moses, a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington D.C.
“That also mirrors in overdose deaths,” Moses pointed out. “Between 2006 and 2010, heroin overdose deaths went up about 45 percent.”
Afghanistan is the biggest producer of heroin, with 3.3 million Afghans involved in producing opium. Afghanistan is part of a region known as the Golden Triangle, which also includes portions of Southeast Asia, the Yunnan province in China, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
Health officials and members of law enforcement see the heroin problem getting worse unless it is properly addressed.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, of West Virginia, put it bluntly.
“The challenges we face are unlike any fight we have undertaken before.”
Reporters from Civitas News Media contributed to this story.