Newly released figures from the Ohio Department of Health show a spike in fatal heroin overdoses. That should push policymakers and politicians to expand the state’s inadequate treatment network, which now serves only about one in 10 of those who need help.
Heroin overdose deaths in Ohio rose nearly 60 percent in 2012, while the number of deaths from prescription pills dropped for the first time in more than a decade. Ohio’s 680 heroin-related deaths in 2012, reported last week, represent the latest official count.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine told The Blade’s editorial page that he estimates, from a separate tally his office compiles, that at least 1,000 such deaths occurred in 2013.
“There are still communities, particularly in the suburbs, that act surprised when I tell them they have a heroin problem,” he said. “But they shouldn’t.”
An estimated 80 percent of the state’s heroin addicts started their habit with prescription painkillers. Much of the heroin and opioid legislation before the General Assembly aims to tighten controls on the dispensing and monitoring of prescription drugs such as Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet.
Such measures are needed to ensure that patients use these prescription drugs safely, understand their risks, and don’t divert them to the street, where they are sold illicitly. Even so, publicity about such abuse and more aggressive sanctions by the Ohio State Medical Association have alleviated the problem.
Prescriptions for dangerously high levels of opioids dropped more than 40 percent between 2011 and 2013. The health department reports that deaths from accidental overdoses of prescription opioids dropped nearly 12 percent in 2012, from 789 a year earlier to 697.
“The bad news is that many of those already addicted have switched to heroin,” Mr. DeWine said. He acknowledged that successful state efforts in 2011 to close the state’s pill mills could have accelerated the epidemic’s shift to heroin. “Law enforcement has a role, but it’s clear we don’t have enough treatment in the state, and it’s clear we don’t have enough on the prevention side,” he said.
State lawmakers and Gov. John Kasich need to ensure that more of the state’s estimated 200,000 opioid addicts get the help they need. That will also reduce the demand for illicit prescription painkillers and heroin.
Still, only one of the 13 opioid and heroin bills in the General Assembly deals seriously with treatment. House Bill 369, sponsored by state Rep. Robert Sprague, (R., Findlay), would allocate nearly $200 million for recovery housing and case managers in specialty drug courts.
“We can’t arrest our way out of the problem,” said Mr. DeWine, who last fall launched a heroin unit to help local law enforcement agencies catch major dealers. “The counties that have made the most progress on this have involved churches, businesses, average citizens, victims — the entire community.”
Prevention is as important as treatment, and often costs little. Mr. DeWine said he heard a proposal at a town hall meeting for a state-sponsored Web site on opioid addiction that would list resources, provide general information, and outline prevention strategies.
Schools also need to do a better job of educating students about drugs, from kindergarten to 12th grade. “I’m not blaming anyone, but I don’t know anywhere where students are getting 13 years of appropriate education on drugs,” Mr. DeWine said.
Heroin and opioid addiction have become a dangerous public health problem in Ohio, as the latest overdose figures show. State lawmakers have acted in a constructive, bipartisan way, but they must do more to get to the root of the problem: treating addictions that destroy and ruin lives while creating an insatiable demand for illicit drugs.
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