LIMA – When Kyle Fittro started in the drug unit at the Allen County Sheriff’s Office nearly 12 years ago, crack and cocaine were the drugs of choice.
Crack, in particular, was cheap and plentiful on the streets. Heroin was an afterthought, a drug of the 1960s and 1970s that conjured up the image of a skid-row user lying in an alley injecting himself.
Many police officers old enough to remember those days thought heroin was a drug of the past.
“If you asked me seven years ago, I would have never thought I would see heroin in this community,” said Lt. Matt Treglia of the sheriff’s Office, who spent nearly 12 years in the drug unit.
The opiate revolution changed things.
People having surgery were giving opiate-type drugs such as Vicodin to manage pain. The vast majority of people took the drug as prescribed. They healed from surgery and no longer needed the medication and got on with life, said Fittro, now the police chief in Delphos.
But there were a small percentage of people who got hooked on opiate pain killers. When prescriptions ran out, they sought illegal means of getting the drug such as stealing. When their gateway to the drug dried up, many addicts turned to heroin even if the pain was gone, Fittro said.
Heroin is in the same class of drugs as opiates, Fittro said.
Heroin is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from some kinds of poppy plants. It is an opiate, along with morphine, codeine, Oxycontin, Percocet and methadone.
Fittro remembers the first time he heard of heroin’s comeback.
“I remember it very well. We had been hearing about heroin for about six months. Everybody was buzzing and talking about it. We had not actually seen heroin in the city of Delphos then in 2009, we stopped a young couple walking down the street and the female had heroin in her purse,” Fittro said.
Heroin typically comes in a powder form, brown in color. It is cheaper in larger cities, typically $10 for a tenth of a gram in places like Dayton and Columbus. That same dose may sell for $20 to $25 in a smaller city or village. A tenth of a gram amounts to a small amount of powder that fits inside a pill capsule.
The cost is all relative,
For people who turn to the drug after becoming addicted to prescription opiates, heroin is much cheaper. At the height of her addiction, Danielle Snyder said she needed eight to 10 80-milligram pills a day. She needed that amount, not to get high, but to avoid being sick, which is a significant health effect of opiate addiction. Prescription medications are expensive on the street; they could cost her $60 a pill. However, an equivalent dose of heroin cost $25 or less.
Heroin is very addictive and equally dangerous. It can be taken in several ways such as smoked, snorted or eaten. But the preferred method is injection straight into a vein, Fittro said.
“Very rarely do you see people snorting heroin other than beginners. Within a few months they graduate to the needle. Once they’re on the needle they don’t ever go back,” Fittro said.
Health officials treating people addicted to heroin say the drug is everywhere — cheap, easy to get, and very difficult to get off.
Connected to a rise in prescription medication abuse, heroin has gripped the region. The West Central Ohio Crime Task Force, comprised of officers in Allen, Van Wert and Paulding counties, has seen a skyrocketing number of cases connected to heroin. In 2009, the task force handled 30 cases. By 2011, the number doubled, to 61. By 2013, it had more than doubled again, to 157 cases.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine calls the use of heroin and crimes associated with it an epidemic in the state. He
surveyed 47 county coroners in Ohio and came up with the following data:
•2010: 292 heroin overdose deaths
•2011: 395 heroin overdose deaths
•2012: 606 heroin overdose deaths.
“Communities have to wake up. If you don’t think you have a problem, you are probably wrong,” DeWine said. “New data our office has gathered suggests 11 people die in Ohio every week from a heroin overdose.”
Snyder, who today is a peer recovery coach, came out the other side of heroin addiction and is now part of a pilot program funded by Mental Health and Recovery Board of Allen, Auglaize and Hardin counties attempting to get a handle on the epidemic of heroin abuse in the region and state.
Heroin places people into an extraordinary state of relaxation. The big problem comes when so much is used it relaxes a person’s body to the point organs such as the lungs stop breathing and the person dies, Fittro said.
“When you overdose on heroin, or any opiate, your body simple forgets to breath. They won’t even know they are dying. They just go to sleep and they don’t wake up,” Fittro said.
Heroin users report feeling a surge of euphoria followed by a twilight state of sleep and wakefulness. Regular use of the drug leads to tolerance; users need more and more of the drug to achieve the same effect. With no regulations or oversight on the streets, heroin users do not know the actual strength of the drug or its true contents, and are at high risk of overdose or death. Also, people who inject the drug risk getting infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.
Overdoses are common but there is an antidote, Narcan that works very fast if paramedics can get to the person fast enough. Narcan destroys opiates in the body, essentially bringing the person back to life, Fittro said.
“It will take people from blue and foaming at the mouth to back to life in 60 seconds if it’s caught in time,” Fittro said.
As an example of the power of Narcan, Fittro said Delphos would have recorded 17 more dead bodies from heroin had Narcan not been around.
While Narcan rescues a person in an overdose, it also leads to immediate withdraw with is very hard for addicts to go through, Treglia said.
“It’s terrible. It’s unlike any other. Most people end up using this drug just to do day to day functions,” Treglia said.
Eventually the high cannot be obtained but the addict keeps using to stop the withdraw symptoms, Treglia said.
Heroin is very hard to get off, Fittro said.
“There’s only three ways you come off heroin if you’re a true addict: prison, death or long-term inpatient rehab. Those are your only three chances. People who are real, true deal heroin addicts, they don’t stop,” Fittro said.