Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is late in declaring heroin an epidemic in Ohio — but at least his pedal is now planted to the metal. Mr. DeWine is convening roundtable talks on this public health crisis and establishing a $1 million heroin unit to assist community organizations and law enforcement agencies.
The new unit within his office — including investigators, lawyers, and drug agents — will focus on addiction and trafficking, expanded community outreach and education, criminal-lab services, and law enforcement, as well as coordination of local efforts to reduce heroin addiction.
A heroin epidemic has afflicted much of Ohio and the rest of the country for more than a decade, fueled by a pipeline of drugs from Mexico and other countries that have become purer, cheaper, and more addictive. Ubiquitous prescription painkillers have aggravated the thirst for opiates, resulting in more deaths, more crime, more people with AIDS, and more crowded prisons.
Heroin-related cases handled by the attorney general’s crime lab have skyrocketed. An estimated 11 or more Ohioans die each week from heroin overdoses — more than 600 deaths last year, a figure that more than doubled since 2010.
In Lucas County, heroin-related deaths doubled annually, from 8 in 2010 to 15 in 2011, and to 31 in 2012. As of August, 52 heroin-related deaths occurred this year; the county’s chief toxicologist, Dr. Robert Forney, expects more than 100 in 2013.
Most of the victims of heroin overdoses were middle-aged. Suffering from chronic pain, they graduated from prescription painkillers.
Despite state efforts to close pain clinics that dished out opiates — so-called pill mills — and to contain opiate prescribing, painkillers such as Oxycontin, Percocet, and vicodin continue to lead some people to heroin. With heroin now as cheap as $10 a dose, some addicts have turned to the drug as a cheap, readily available alternative to popping dozens of pain pills.
Treatment and demand reduction should drive any drug-fighting strategy. Drug courts that provide options other than incarceration and felony charges for those who successfully complete long-term treatment programs have proven themselves around the country.
It’s encouraging that Dr. Orman Hall, director of Gov. John Kasich’s Healthy Ohio office, says the state is piloting a medication-assisted treatment program with some drug courts.
Ohioans must understand, if only through the testimony of others, how hard it is to overcome an opiate addiction. The misery of withdrawal includes spasms, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, aching bones and muscles, and depression.
It’s not unusual for heroin addicts to go through treatment 10 or more times before they beat addiction. Memories of drug-induced euphoria will chase former addicts for years.
Mr. DeWine’s team must figure out not only what treatment programs work, but also how people will pay for them. Many, if not most, addicts don’t have insurance. Inpatient treatment can cost hundreds of dollars a day.
Awareness is a key and relatively cheap weapon to fight drug abuse. Mr. DeWine raised it when he appeared at a community forum in Toledo this week to talk about Ohio’s drug problem.
It was one of 10 forums the attorney general plans around Ohio. Using his office as a bully pulpit is an effective strategy to prevent drug abuse and addiction.
Addiction will also certainly become an issue in next year’s campaign for Ohio attorney general, and it should. But politicians must focus on educating the public, advancing solutions, and creating bipartisan coalitions that get things done.
Recent jabs by David Pepper, Mr. DeWine’s likely Democratic opponent, that the attorney general is using outdated data appear neither especially relevant nor constructive. Ohio already knows, or should know, that it has a problem.
What’s needed most is not more data collection and sharing, but more effective education and treatment programs. Some Ohio leaders, including Mr. DeWine, finally appear ready to fight for them.