WEST MILTON — Communities throughout the country are struggling to respond to epidemic levels of heroin abuse. In Miami County, recovery and treatment specialists and first responders organized a series of seminars to offer information about the crisis, how it is being addressed locally and how the community can get involved.
Last Tuesday, Hoffman United Methodist Church hosted the third of these forums, which featured Amy Cost, a community outreach specialist from the Miami County Recovery Council (MCRC), along with a panel of representatives from the Tri-County Board of Recovery and Mental Health Services, Miami County Public Health, and Recovery and Wellness Centers of Midwest Ohio.
Miami County Common Pleas Court Judge Christopher Gee, West Milton Police Chief Harry Busse, Sheriff Dave Duchak and Union Township Life Squad Chief Linda Cook also joined the panel.
Cost and the panel presented the audience of community members with information about the issue, solutions and treatment options, before taking questions.
“There is hope, there is recovery, there is healing,” Cost stressed.
It’s no secret that heroin use and overdoses have been on the rise for several years.
According to epidemiologist Janel Hodges with Miami County Public Health, in January of 2014, 20 people overdosed in Miami County. That number increased by 10 in the same period in 2015 and doubled in January 2016. In the first month of this year, 102 Miami County residents overdosed. Of those 102 overdoses, 22 were fatal.
Hodges noted the overdoses reported may not necessarily be related to heroin and/or opioid usage, as the Miami County Public Health Department does not always have a way of distinguishing what drug-related overdose is caused by which drug.
“This is a major crisis for us…this problem’s not going away,” Hodges said.
The rate of people overdosing in particular zip codes also showed that the heroin epidemic is not just an issue in Troy and Piqua.
“This is not just a city problem,” Hodges said.
The West Milton zip code has the highest rates of drug interaction for its population — about 10.5 per 1,000 people — followed by Ludlow Falls, Piqua, Troy, Covington, and Tipp City.
Cost, an Air Force veteran, became fully aware of the heroin crisis when she met a heroin-addicted veteran in her job as a disabled veterans outreach specialist.
“Honestly, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? You’re a veteran, what are you doing heroin for?’ I didn’t understand,” Cost said. “I kind of dismissed him. Like a lot of people, I was like, ‘You put the needle in you’re arm. I’m not going to go out of my way to help you’ … and then very shortly after that I met my second and my third and my fourth.”
Many people want to talk about the challenges veterans face — including barriers to employment and homelessness — but no one wanted to talk about heroin-addicted veterans, Cost said.
Veterans are particularly vulnerable to becoming heroin or opioid addicts. Cost explained that about 60 percent of deployed veterans and 50 percent of older veterans suffer from chronic pain.
“I’ve got chronic pain. I’ve got a bad back, bad knees, PTSD, all that stuff. And guess what they treat that with? Narcotics,” she said.
Opiates are narcotics derived from opium, such as heroin and morphine. Opioids are narcotics that are at least partially synthetic and not found in nature, such as Oxycontin and other synthetic chemical compounds like fentanyl and carfentanyl, the latter of which is used as a tranquilizer for elephants.
As people build a tolerance to opiates or opioids, their bodies need more to feel the same effect. Tolerance is the first sign of opioid addiction, Cost said.
Many people start taking one or two a day until that doesn’t work anymore, she explained.
“Then he was taking two at a time, then he was taking five a day, then 10 a day. And then his prescription ran out,” Cost said of a veteran she worked with.
As the disease progresses, taking pills often becomes crushing and snorting pills, which turns to smoking and then to injection.
“They didn’t start with a needle…they started with a pill,” she said. She stressed that addicts are people struggling with a disease.
Cost also explained that addicts start going through withdrawal symptoms or become “dope sick” after six hours without use of heroin or opioids. Then, while continuing to detox, addicts go through seven to 10 more days of “terrible flu-like symptoms,” which include chronic muscle pain, nausea, diarrhea, and more, Cost said.
One of the biggest barriers to treatment is social stigma, Cost said. Many people look down on addicts, saying “Let them die,” or “It’s a choice,” Cost said.
“These are people,” Cost reminded the audience.
For law enforcement and first responders, the heroin epidemic has meant not only an increase in drug use and overdoses, but also in “spin off” crimes like theft and impaired driving, Busse said.
Impaired driving arrests are up, especially during the day — something that used to be much more rare, he added.
Duchak said the approach to combating heroin in the county has changed in recent years. While the Sheriff’s Office used to target the dealers in hopes of limiting supply, the department isn’t seeing as many dealers in the county. Most people are going to Dayton, where heroin is cheaper.
Duchak also pointed out that Ohio’s jails and prisons are “the largest addiction and mental health treatment facilities.” Jail medical and corrections staff handle overdoses and detox treatment, which has placed a strain on the staff and caused the department to spend more on medical services.
According to Gee, heroin-related crime now accounts for approximately 80 percent of his criminal cases. The county’s drug court program is good, but it doesn’t work for everyone, he said.
Gee said there are “a lot of reasons to be hopeful, however” and stressed the importance of intervention. Covington resident and recovering addict Jay Meyer said that the intervention of his family was crucial for him, as well as his faith.
First responders all over the county now have Narcan kits with them. Residents can also get free Narcan kits from the health department through Project DAWN (deaths avoided with naloxone), Hodges added.
MCRC has responded to the heroin epidemic by almost tripling their staff. The county also has a Quick Response Team. MCRC has also opened up a social or ambulatory home that is basically a detox and stabilization program. It is a six-bedroom house for men only.
MCRC is also planning for a similar program for women, MCRC’s Executive Director Thom Grim said.
Dwight Richard, clinical director of Recovery and Wellness Centers of Midwest Ohio, also discussed new medication available called vivitrol, or naltrexone, which helps prevent relapses into drug abuse by helping with the cravings, but it does not have the addictive side affects of other treatment drugs like methadone.
The panel also commended the efforts of Hope Over Heroin, a faith-based initiative that helps connect people with addiction and recovery resources. The group will host an event in Piqua this summer.
They agreed that a key component to battling heroin in the area is community involvement.
“This is a great county that cares,” Duchak added. “This is not a law enforcement or government problem, it’s a community problem.”
For more information, view MCRC’s Heroin Coalition resource guide online at www.mcrcinc.org/heroin-coalition-resource-guide.html.
Reach Cecilia Fox at [email protected]