Tox Tuesday: The rise in Ohio’s heroin related issues

Drug Syringe And Cooked HeroinOver the course of the past 15 years, the state of Ohio has seen fatal heroin overdoses rise approximately 366%, according to a 2014 report published by the Ohio Department of Health. While this number may seem shocking, other states are recording similar, although not as drastic statistics.

Based on this extreme increase, some researchers are deeming the buckeye state a “window on the world,” and warning state governments and police forces that more action must be taken to help control the spread of heroin use and the overdose death occurrence involving the drug and other opiates like prescription pain relievers.

In 2013, the crime lab in Ohio’s Hamilton County processed 35,573 pieces of evidence, of which 27,038 were drug related. In fact, 76% of all the evidence processed by the lab that year was related to the current heroin epidemic. This occurrence, as stated in the report, is coming from a “perfect storm” of contributing factors, including a crackdown on Ohio “pill mills” and the decreasing cost of heroin.

When broken down even further, this means out of the 137 pieces of evidence Hamilton County’s crime lab handles on average each day, 104 of them are drug related. For this lab, and others like it, this excessive amount is showing to be very problematic as they cannot keep up with the growing demand. This reality has led to severe public health and safety concerns across Ohio.

For example, officials with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office said in a recent article that in 2013 at least 17 people died each week in Ohio from heroin overdose. Even more alarming is that by the end of 2013, there were 70 overdose deaths linked to the combination of heroin and other substances such as Fentanyl, a prescription painkiller, which according to the officials, increases a user’s risk for overdose by as much as 50 times.

Not only is heroin being cut with painkillers like Fentanyl, participants in an addiction survey said it is also being combined with dissolvable powders from foods and other substances such as aspirin, laxatives, baking soda, bath salts, dietary supplements, drywall, paint, wax, shoe polish, sleep aids and more.

A participant in the study stated, “It’s scary, you never know what you’re going to get mixed in with heroin.”

The same report also sheds light on the populations most affected by overdoses and finds that prescription opioid overdose compared to heroin overdose affects different groups of people. For example, the report shows that Ohioans aged 45-54 are at the highest risk for prescription opioid overdose; whereas young males aged 25-34 are at the highest risk for fatal heroin overdose. White Ohioans continue to be at the greatest risk for fatal drug overdose regardless of substance; however, black males are at greater risk for heroin overdose compared to white females. The reverse of this is true for prescription opioids.

“Our goal is to dismantle drug organizations,” Special Agent Dennis Sweet said in an article. “Ideally we would like to arrest the guy selling on the street in Cleveland, Lorain, or Mentor, and track it all the way back to the Mexican border, and arrest everybody along the way.”

However, due to the increased amount of drug trafficking and drug-related crime in the state, authorities have had to enact other plans to help them counter the growing drug and overdose problem. This includes the creation of a heroin task force, known as Project DAWN. DAWN, which stands for Deaths Avoided with Naloxone, focuses on educating citizens about naloxone (also known as Narcan) and how it can save someone’s life during a heroin or other opioid overdose when administered correctly.

Naloxone works by blocking the effects of opioids on the brain of the user and quickly restores breathing. According to the state’s report, it has been used safely by emergency medical professionals for more than 40 years and has no potential for abuse.

Project DAWN is similar to other naloxone distribution projects in other states, and works by providing high-risk opioid users with naloxone. It also trains members of a user’s family or friends on how to respond to an opioid overdose using naloxone. Intranasal naloxone is provided to participants as part of their take-home kit and has been shown to save lives in the event of an overdose before paramedics can arrive.

Expanded access to naloxone however, can also lead to a shortage of the drug which has been the case in other states with similar laws. To meet the anticipated demand, pharmacies across Ohio along with the State Board of Pharmacy play a critical role in raising awareness, increasing education and advocating that naloxone is ready for distribution at all times.

According to the state’s report, if these important factors can be met, officials are hopeful that overdose deaths and the serious drug problems in the state can begin to decline, saving lives and providing guidance to other states where similar problems occur.

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