Despite record drug seizures and a growing awareness of addiction, Ohio’s heroin epidemic continues to worsen. The state’s biggest public health problem requires far more resources for treatment, education, and prevention.
In northwest Ohio, heroin-related deaths are on pace nearly to double again this year. Fatal overdoses in the area more than doubled last year, to 80 from 31 in 2012. In the first six months of this year, 72 heroin-related deaths were reported, Dr. Robert Forney, Lucas County’s chief toxicologist, told The Blade’s editorial page.
The victims’ average age was 39, and most were white men in their 30s and 40s. Of the 72 deaths, 56 were of men. More than 80 percent — 57 — were white; 11, or 15 percent, were African-American, according to toxicology records.
Although the deaths cover 23 counties, most occurred in Lucas County. In a recent interview, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said trends in northwest Ohio reflect increases in heroin-related deaths across the state. “It’s stunning,” he told The Blade’s editorial page.
During the week of Aug. 10 alone, Lucas County had three fatalities that were probably heroin-related overdoses, said county Sheriff John Tharp. The county coroner’s office won’t establish the official cause of death until after an investigation that could take weeks.
The victims were a 17-year-old male from Sylvania Township, a 30-year-old male from Springfield Township, and a 36-year-old female from Grand Rapids.
“I’d say [the epidemic] is accelerating,” Dr. Forney said. “We’re not plateauing. We’re not only seeing more this year than last year, but also more from one month to the next. ... We’re producing more addicts. That’s the problem.”
Most heroin-related overdoses are the result of deadly combinations of drugs that could include Benadryl, antihistamines, sleeping aids, and anti-depressants, he said.
Asked why more men than women are overdosing, Dr. Forney said males may be more likely to suffer injuries, including sports-related injuries, for which painkillers were prescribed. Some of those patients later become addicted to prescription opioids and eventually to heroin, he said.
Last month, the Sheriff’s Office rolled out a new addiction resource unit, including two deputies who work full-time investigating overdoses and working with overdose victims and their families to get people into treatment. They also work with families of addicts who had trouble with the law, mostly by stealing to support their habit, but are seeking help.
Local 911 dispatchers now notify the Sheriff’s Office of every overdose. The new addiction resource unit already is handling 80 cases, Mr. Tharp said. It is becoming a statewide model of how law enforcement can more effectively deal with a drug epidemic.
Given the growth of this opioid epidemic, however, much more is needed. Now, only one in 10 Ohioans who need treatment for addiction gets it. Making matters worse is the lack of medication-assisted treatment programs across much of the state.
The latest statistics on heroin-related fatalities in northwest Ohio should be a call to action. Ohio needs an adequate statewide treatment network. The alternative is more of the same: rising death tolls and growing numbers of Ohioans who suffer the misery of addiction.